LAST TIME AROUND, IN THE 1994 Republican primary to fill Oklahoma’s first district congressional seat, the candidates were an impressively experienced bunch that included a state representative, a former Tulsa mayor and the party’s state chair. Then there was Steve Largent, at the time a 40-year-old father of four who had never even run for high school student council and whose biggest fear was that someone might ask him to explain how Congress passes a bill.
Backed by hundreds of volunteers, mostly from the Christian right, Largent sailed straight to Capitol Hill and is a shoo-in again this year. “He’s a hard-core conservative but gets away with it because he’s so real,” says fellow conservative freshman Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee. “That’s what he believes.” Largent may profess a lack of interest in politics, but he is a man with a mission: to bring his brand of evangelical values to bear on public policy. “My No. 1 foundation,” he says, “is as a believer in Christ.”
He was equally single-minded in his first career—as an ace wide receiver with pro football’s Seattle Seahawks, where he put in 14 seasons. Though smallish (5’11”, 190 lbs.) and on the slow side compared to many pro receivers, Largent is one of three all-time leaders in number of seasons (10) with 50 or more receptions, and he ranks second all-time in touchdown receptions and third in receptions and yards gained. When he retired in 1989 and returned to his native Oklahoma, he settled into a less demanding job, trading on his football fame and good looks to do promotions and advertising. So when Oklahoma’s Sen. Don Nickles—for whom Largent had done some fund-raising—phoned early in 1994 to urge him to run for office, he said, in effect, thanks but no thanks. After a second call, Largent and his wife, Terry, 41, also an active evangelical Christian, reconsidered after 10 days of prayer. “This,” said Terry, “is what you’re meant to do.”
Still, it hasn’t come easily, admits Largent, who immediately after his election bought a copy of Robert’s Rules of Order. “I’ve always felt I’m a quick learner,” he says, reflecting on his introduction to Washington, “but it’s a very complicated process.” That hasn’t stopped him from jumping into the legislative fray, pushing the agenda he ran on that academic Nancy Bednar calls “God, guns and gays.” (He’s pro, pro and con.) Largent opposes abortion under any circumstances, most forms of gun control and special legal protection for gays. He would halt federal involvement in education and social programs, ceding control to the states. “Government does a very poor job of meeting anyone’s needs,” says Largent, who would prefer giving block grants to private organizations. He is a sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which would bar federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and the Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, which would drastically increase parents’ say over what kids are taught in school—for instance, letting them scrutinize sex-education curriculums. “Clearly he’s after a more ideological agenda,” says Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a Democratic opponent of the act.
Largent came to Christianity partly as a refuge from a tumultuous childhood. Born in Tulsa in 1954, he was the oldest of three sons of Jim, a salesman, and Sue, who divorced when Steve was 7. His mother moved the family to Oklahoma City and married and divorced a second husband, a heavy drinker. Steve excelled on the football field at Putnam City High School (where he met Terry), then at the University of Tulsa and eventually as a pro.
His less pressured, post-NFL life gave him more time than he has today with daughter Casie, now 14, and sons Kyle, 16, Kelly, 11, and Kramer, 10, who attend a private Christian school. Largent’s family has remained home in Tulsa while, on weekdays, he shares a dingy Capitol Hill townhouse with Wamp and fellow Oklahoma freshman Tom Coburn. “We haven’t cooked a single meal in that house,” says Largent, who survives mostly on reception hors d’oeuvres. Weekends he flies home to meet constituents and be with the family. “The kids have missed him a lot,” says Terry. But it’s all for the cause, she adds, “so no one’s complaining.”
GLENN GARELIK in Washington and MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Tulsa