WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci arrived in Congress in 2010 with a goal: He wanted a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the nation’s tax laws.
One of the few CPAs in Congress, he felt he had the expertise. But he was told he was too new and to let it go.
Every week, Renacci, now Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s Republican opponent for Senate, sent a letter and his resume to every committee member, reminding them of his desire to be on the committee. His doggedness paid off: He was picked during the third year of his U.S. House career — a rarity for such a junior lawmaker.
"He never gives up," said Ohio Republican Party Chairman Jane Timken.
As Renacci wages an uphill battle to unseat Brown, allies say that Renacci’s tenacity might be his greatest asset — and the one that matters most during this election.
He entered the race in January after GOP candidate Josh Mandel dropped out because of his wife’s health. Renacci has been outraised handily by Brown. And he’s little known outside of the northeastern Ohio district that he represents.
"He’s kind of flown under the radar," said David Cohen, a University of Akron political science professor. "I’m asked all the time by people ‘who is Jim Renacci?’ and it’s a really hard answer."
But Renacci is accustomed to uphill battles. He was the first in his family to go to college. He started one business, then another, then, ultimately, 60. The kid who figured he’d go to the steel mills when he graduated from high school became a millionaire, and then, when the government picked a fight with him, he took it on, too, winning a seat in Congress in 2010.
"Here’s a guy who’s worth how many millions?" said Ryan Stenger, a lobbyist for Timken Steel. "Jim Renacci could be probably making a lot more money and having a hell of a lot more fun doing something else."
"He was a problem solver in the business world," said Renacci’s son, Andrew, 31. "Now he’s trying to be a problem solver here."
Critics say that Renacci is just another rich guy who bought a congressional seat. Of the $6.2 million he has raised for his Senate bid, $4 million has been his money. They say he’s done little during his eight years in Congress.
"I don’t think he’s really visible at all," said Tom Sutton, a political science professor at Baldwin Wallace University.
Renacci "has yet to develop that kind of political identity that can kind of break through in a year like this for a candidate in a party having a tough year," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles.
Some critics point to his links to Canton businessman Ben Suarez as evidence that he’s not as upstanding as allies suggest. Suarez, a North Canton businessman, was convicted of witness tampering in 2012 in relation to a campaign finance investigation involving contributions to Renacci and Mandel. Renacci has denied knowing Suarez well, despite a Dayton Daily News report that the two men exchanged more than 40 calls between November 2010 and May 2012.
Renacci grew up in a working class family in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, his mother a nurse and his father a railroad worker. Renacci figured he’d go into the steel mills after he graduated from high school, but his mother had other ideas.
"She asked me to try college," he said.
So Renacci took a series of jobs — truck driver, road crew, mechanic — and worked his way through. As he did, a seed was planted: He might be able to leave his small town.
When a job opened up in Ohio after graduation, he jumped. To him, Ohio was a place where you didn’t have to choose between life in a steel mill or a coal mine. It might a place, he reasoned, "where anything was possible."
So he moved to Wadsworth, west of Akron, with a couple hundred bucks and a beat-up car. At 24, he started his own business. By the time he got to 60 businesses, he had created 1,500 jobs.
Many days, he’d criss-cross the state, driving three hours to and from one of his businesses in a day to make it home to his wife and kids, a phone card in his pocket in the days before cell phones.
"I had no interest in running for public office," he said.
But he did have an interest in helping his small town. When a friend recruited him to run for mayor, Renacci said yes — an extension, friends say, of the sort of civic do-goodery that they’d become accustomed to seeing from him.
"He’s that guy, you know?" said Bob Althoff, a friend. "Coaching Little League teams, volunteer firefighter, and city council, mayor — the stuff that every small town needs and not everyone is always willing to do."
That changed in 2009 when the Chevrolet dealership he co-owned was swept into the massive, $17.4 billion auto bailout. When the government put Renacci-Doraty Chevrolet on the list of dealerships to be closed, Renacci was furious. He decided to run against his congressman, Rep. John Boccieri, beating him 52 to 41 percent. He was one of five Ohio Republicans to beat incumbent Democrats that year.
According to Roll Call, he’s worth some $34 million and is the sixth wealthiest member of Congress. "He could be in the Mediterranean if he chose to right now," said Althoff.
But instead, he’s in the House, a lifestyle that has him flying home on the weekends and asking donors for money for what has become a perpetual campaign cycle. More frustrating than that, though, is the fact that it is incredibly difficult to get anything done as one of 435.
Stenger, a former aide to Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, recalls how Gibbs, Renacci and staffers would go to dinner during their early days in Congress, commiserating about the difficulty of getting things done. Renacci, said Stenger, was "hell bent on reaching across the aisle and not just hanging with Republicans."
One day, during a congressional hearing, Renacci’s frustration bubbled over. He lamented that the hearing was being used for partisan fights rather than legislative results. "I didn’t come here to argue about each other," Renacci recalls saying. "I came here to get something done."
Afterward, a Democrat from the state of Delaware, John Carney, approached him. Carney empathized with Renacci. Would he be interested in working together?
The two formed the Bipartisan Working Group, meeting weekly to figure out what the two sharply divided parties could agree on. They worked on an estimated 15 to 20 bills that passed the House. Carney eventually became governor of Delaware. Still, the group keeps meeting.
Renacci said he’s frustrated by the fact that each party’s goal seems to be to win the next election — not solve problems. Now, after nearly a decade in Congress, running for a second D.C. office, his near-constant refrain is that "career politicians" such as Brown are the reason Washington is such a mess. They've forgotten the people they serve at home, he said.
Renacci, meanwhile, insists that he's running to give others the same shot at success that Ohio gave him.
"Ohio gave me the opportunity to live the American dream," he said.