SIOUX CITY | There was only one board game in the house. A chess set. But the King boys put that set to good use while growing up in the small northern Iowa town of Goodell.
Brothers Steve and Jon King were often joined by father Emmet King for the daily games. “We’d sit down and play chess,” said Jon King, of Guthrie Center, Iowa. “Either I’d play chess with Dad or my brothers.”
“It teaches you to be logical and not emotional. Because there is no emotion in chess. If you start getting upset, you lose control.”
Years later, U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Kiron, hasn’t forgotten that lesson, often drawing on those days playing chess in his efforts to stay several moves ahead of his political opponents.
Jon, Steve’s younger brother, said people often make decisions based on either logic or emotion. His brother, on the other hand, relies only on logic.
"A lot of the decisions that Steve makes that are so unpopular at first are because he removed emotion from it and got right down to the brass tacks to begin with,” Jon King said. “We have so many people in Washington that are making decisions based on emotion, the way it makes them feel. That is a mistake.
"A lot of times, the things he says, they may not be as sugar-coated as some people would like them to be."
Renowned as a Republican conservative with a penchant for controversial but straightforward takes on topics such as immigration, abortion and marriage, King has developed a national profile in the 10 years since his surprising first congressional victory.
While he represents 32 western Iowa counties, King is a frequent guest on major media television and radio programs espousing traditional conservative values and politics. Even those appearances are part of “a calculated and concerted effort” to advance those values, King acknowledges.
A strategy first gleaned leaning over a chess board with his father and brother.
"I need to take the message to their constituents. We need to move the political center in America to the right, and the most effective way I can do that is to do media -- national media and media within the district -- wherever I can, as often as I think I can carry a message," King said. “I could go there and just take care of the district and put my votes up and stay out of the spotlight. I might have time to go fishing if I did that. But that's not doing everything I can do to move our agenda."
A slice of Americana
As he runs for a sixth term against Democrat Christie Vilsack in Iowa's 4th District, congressional redistricting has finally provided King a chance to represent tiny Goddell, Iowa.
King typically describes being raised in Denison, Iowa, but the reality is he was born in Storm Lake and lived there until beginning kindergarten. The family of Emmet and Mildred King lived in Goodell through the middle of his sixth-grade year.
"It is like going home again, in a way, because those years, I think in anybody's life, are when things are as perfect they are ever going to be. You always want your children to grow up in a similar environment, when you felt like everything was under control, good management. And it was. You know, I don't have a family sob story of any kind," King said.
King enjoyed the slice of Americana he experienced as a kid. When mother Mildred King would put a pot roast in the oven, the family would troop off to church, then return to eat together after his mother made the gravy.
King said he learned how to hunt from his father, but more than that, he gleaned the ways to productively aid society.
"It was described to me that you do your part and you understand where you fit in the broader picture and make those contributions. And I believe that all the adults around me had that figured out. But I spent years sitting on a bulldozer and running a business trying to unlock that code to that master formula," he said.
He rarely talks about Goddell, where his father served a stint as mayor, but King enjoyed the upbringing as the second oldest of the five King kids. The days were filled with fishing trips to Minnesota, pick-up baseball games and planting ash trees along the Iowa River.
"We played tackle football on the tundra on recess. And if your head hit the frozen tundra too hard, you just should have had another stocking cap on," King said with a laugh.
"We played baseball every night in the summertime in Goodell. I look back on it now, we were pretty good. We didn't have any organized teams, we didn't have anything like uniforms, we had to play work-up. We would play till we lost the ball and couldn't find it anymore. And then we'd lay down in a circle with our chins on our gloves and just talk and tell stories, and be kids growing up. When our mothers started to holler at us, whoever didn't get hollered for went home last. You couldn't ask for more of a Norman Rockwellian type of a grade school, growing up."
King went on a lot of hunting excursions with his father, chafing at the rule that he couldn't hunt until reaching 9, the age his father deemed appropriate and safe. Squirrels and rabbits were common game, and the family ate most of what was shot.
"We had jackrabbit patties. I wouldn't recommend that to be the cuisine for anyone's family," he said.
Emmett King worked for the state police radio station and got transferred periodically. He went from working in Hancock County and living in Goodell to Crawford County, where Steve King has since lived in Denison and later Kiron, when he began running the King Construction company.
The move from Goodell meant a change from a class with six boys to a Denison school with several class sections per grade, and well over 100 sixth-grade classmates.
"It was a lot bigger pond, with a lot more fish in it. I'm not going to talk about it very much, but there was some adjustment to go through. You have to figure out where you are in the pecking order. Abruptly thrown into that, some kids that might be easy for and some kids it might be hard for," King said.
He didn't like the playground abolition of snowballs and tackle football on the Denison playground but nonetheless made a lot of connections to people who remain friends today, including Jim Hugg.
"I can't mark it all as a trying experience, because of the friendships that are sustained till today. But it is always tough to walk into an environment where you don't know the flow that goes on," King said.
Hugg recalled when King moved to town, since the home was near the church Hugg attended. He wasn't big friends with King in school -- that came later -- but Hugg said King was a friendly student many people liked. A few years later, Hugg said, King drove his father's 1957 Chevy that burned so much oil, he had to keep buckets of used oil constantly in the car.
King was cut from high school basketball but ran the mile in track. By that time, he was highly focused on working at the Super Valu grocery store in Denison, where some mornings unloading trucks began at 5 and he had to rush to make it to school by 9 a.m. Eventually, he was working 40 hours some weeks, for a wage of about $1.25 an hour, King said.
At Denison High, he met Marilyn Kelly, who was a year younger, and they began dating in his senior year before graduating in 1967. Hugg noted he had previously had a crush on Marilyn Kelly in eighth grade, giving her a teddy bear from a fair, but it never went anywhere ("we never held hands"). However, Hugg dated King's sister, Kathy King, while Hugg's brother dated King's other sister, Marilyn King.
King married Marilyn Kelly about five years later, on June 17, 1972, the day of the infamous Watergate break-in, which eventually led to the end of the Richard Nixon presidency.
Math in Missouri
As he moved from high school and on to three years of college, King didn't embrace the youthful rebellion that played out in the 1960s.
"I just didn't understand anybody that said, 'Turn on, tune in, drop out.' It didn't make sense to me," King said.
"I have a cousin who is a liberal, and I remember getting into discussions with him, 'Well, who is going to drive our economy, who is going to provide food, clothing and shelter and defend our shores?' (His reply was) 'Oh, that will be taken care of, just come to Oregon with me.' None of that ever made sense to me. I always knew we had to do our job and hold up our end of this society."
King went to Northwest Missouri State University, where he majored in math. King said that might be an odd major for someone who ended up in politics, but he liked what he called the "exact sciences."
"You get finite answers, exact answers, so you are not subject to the judgment call of the professor, you are subject to the laws of physics and math and geometry," King said.
Steve King worked construction jobs during the summers of his three college years, and that field began to have an allure.
He said he enjoyed college ("It was a good experience all the way around"), but after his third year he had plans to go to Alaska to help an Iowa construction firm build a pipeline. He chose that work over starting his senior year, but then a court injunction halted the 600-mile planned pipeline.
King said he was so far down the path that he went ahead and ended his college career without a degree. Plus, King made the calculation that he was making good money as a construction worker, whereas people with college degrees weren't doing as well.
"I was running a machine and we had college graduates who were down in the ditch with a shovel. It didn't look to me, from the model I saw, that there was a lot of employment opportunity for those with a college degree. Plus, my student loans were adding up," King said.
Building a business from scratch
He began working for a Denison construction firm, then moved to building terraces by driving a bulldozer for the William F. Blair firm for three and a half years through summer 1975. Then the entrepreneurial bug bit.
"I finally realized, 'OK, now it is time for you to make some kind of a move, Steve. Things aren't going to happen of their own accord.' I made that decision in June and by August I had started the business," he said.
King got a bank loan and started from scratch with King Construction, after passing on the name his father suggested, Dirt King. He said 1976 was "a terrible year," and it wasn't until 1977 that a second piece of equipment was affordable. He was the sole employee for years.
"Sometimes, I'd sleep in the pickup," King said.
Those were the years Hugg began to pal around with King. Hugg described how he and King padded their income in the slow winter months by cutting up wood with a chainsaw, then selling it. For many days, the two cut wood and played cards.
"I don't remember through the 1970s, when we were cutting wood and playing euchre every night because there was nothing else to do in the wintertime, that we ever had a political discussion," said Hugg, who is surprised King ended up a lawmaker.
Things improved by 1978, when he won the contract to add dams and terraces to Yellowsmoke Park in Denison. That marked the beginning of getting more work through winning low-bid contracts for public projects, and veering away from solely farm custom work.
King said the 1980s Farm Crisis in Iowa resulted in a tough time for his business and family, to the point where he lived "three and a half years with a knot in my gut" that only went away for a few minutes when listening to Iowa Hawkeye sports on the radio.
His wife, Marilyn, began working, first with a preschool in the Lutheran Church in Kiron, then with a preschool in the Methodist Church in Odebolt. "And we're Catholics," King said with a laugh.
Eventually, she would get a degree from Buena Vista University after attending night classes and began a career as an elementary teacher. The King Construction business jelled after 1987, he said, as the couple worked through raising three boys.
It was while driving King Construction equipment that King began to question the functioning of the federal government. He used those long days to mull options to the status quo, particularly after being audited twice by the Internal Revenue Service. King began to move toward the idea to abolish the federal income tax and all the attendant IRS structure that goes into enforcement.
He said the 1980 audit covering the 1979 tax year lasted four days, so to justify that time commitment, the IRS had to find against him.
“I walked out of there thinking, ‘I want rid of the IRS,’ ” King said at the Sioux City Rotary Club in 2008.
He embraced the so-called Fair Tax, in which the income tax would be replaced by a consumption tax of about 22 percent on purchases.
Eventually, King was moved to run for a state senator position in 1996. He's never lost a November contest for state or federal office, but it took some effort to emerge out of a broad June 2002 Republican primary field.
Hitting on a winning campaign strategy
King ran for the Iowa Senate District 6 seat out of disgruntlement over a 1995 statehouse visit to a Natural Resources Committee meeting. Seeing a legislator's eyes glaze over when King asked him to consider a stance, King felt slighted and realized the composition of the Legislature needed to change.
King had to get through a June 1996 Republican primary with state Sen. Wayne Bennett.
"The message I got was, 'You are seeking to accomplish the impossible,'" King recalled.
So he realized the need to dial up his campaigning. Through planning set up by scheduler Terri Carstensen, of Odebolt, King frequently would appear in about five towns per day, taking 10 days to move through all 50 towns in Senate District 6. Then, he repeated that 10-day plan, again and again.
King said that paid dividends. He handily defeated Bennett, then Democrat Eileen Heiden in the November election. He won another state Senate seat in 2000, then the open 2002 Iowa 5th District congressional seat caught his eye.
There were four men in the Republican primary, and King finished with 30 percent. But that fell short of the required 35 percent threshold, so a nominating convention was held in Denison, and King won after the third ballot, defeating Iowa House Speaker Brent Siegrist, among others.
King used the three-week gap between the primary and the June 29, 2002, special convention to undertake what he jokingly called the "Ambush Some Delegates" plan. He and wife Marilyn would get into the car about 5 a.m. and drive to the towns where he knew some of the uncommitted -- and unsuspecting -- 550 convention delegates lived, in order to elicit support.
King said that massive amount of driving and in-person contact was preferable to phoning. Now, 10 years later, he recalled that strategy "was completely the difference" to winning the primary.
'I don't think he is satisfied'
King had five easy Iowa 5th District wins from 2002 through 2010. While he's enjoyed the support of relatively conservative western Iowans, Democrats have long contended he's been ineffective and made statements that reflect poorly on the state.
In discussing the possible extension of unemployment benefits in 2011, King said he opposed the legislation so that the U.S. wouldn't become "a nation of slackers," and after a disgruntled man crashed a plane into an Internal Revenue Service building in 2010, King made comments some viewed as sympathetic to the man. Prior to the 2008 presidential election, King predicted that if Democrat Barack Obama was elected to the presidency, "al-Qaida, and the radical Islamists and their supporters, will be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on Sept. 11."
Critics also point to the fact that King in 10 years has authored only one piece of legislation that became enacted, which they say shows he promotes his own agenda rather than what is best for working families.
Jon King said when people vote for King, they are drawn by his charisma.
"I always felt that he had, for lack of better terminology, a charisma of a type. If you talk to him in person, you can sense that. He is a very easy person to like, and he always has been," Jon King.
"Even if you disagree with him, you sit down and talk to him, you're going to walk away at least understanding where he was and not disliking him, simply because he has a different position."
Hugg last saw King during a 2010 parade in Sac City, when he helped drive the congressman. He's lately chosen to bypass area King events.
"I don't really like politics. ... We could be standing there talking, and everybody and their dog wants to talk to him. So, I don't need to bother him. If I need something, I can pick up the phone and talk to him," Hugg said.
Hugg said his sister-in-law is a lobbyist who speaks highly of King. Hugg said his former classmate has done well in keeping his Iowa values intact inside the Beltway.
"The best thing about him being a congressman for 10 years is, as far as what he says and what he believes in and what he does, it's the same as when he first went. I don't think that Washington has changed him, at least what he believes and what he wants to accomplish," Hugg said.
Jon King is surprised his brother hasn't run for even higher office, since he has considerable ambition. He noted some people were pushing for Steve King as a presidential candidate in 2011, but said he's never discussed presidential or governor aspirations with him.
"I don't think he is satisfied, I think he always is trying to do more. Whatever drove him this far is continuing to drive him, let me put it that way. My opinion, he is capable of more than (a congressional position)," Jon King said.