Jim Banks: The Most Recently Deployed Serviceman in Congress
WASHINGTON – Serving in the Indiana State Senate, Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) received an unusual call, at least for a sitting lawmaker. As a reservist in the U.S. Navy, Banks was ordered to deploy immediately to Kabul in summer of 2014 for eight months all while raising a young family and representing his constituents in Indianapolis. In an interesting turn of events, his wife Amanda, who he first met when they were both involved with College Republicans at Indiana University, temporarily took over for him in the state legislature. Banks even managed to win an election campaign while serving in Afghanistan, although he admitted that he was assisted by not having an opponent during that race. Banks was even swore-in to the new term while overseas. “I was surrounded by the fellow officers in my unit and it was sort of the juxtaposition of my military service and my political service all in the same place. It was a very powerful moment for me,” he told Jewish Insider during an expansive interview on Capitol Hill last week.
Unassuming in appearance, Banks does not share the excessive self-confidence demonstrated by many of his fellow members of Congress. When asked what makes him unique in the House of Representatives, Banks bluntly replied, “I don’t know if I’m unique or not. I hope I’m rather boring.” With numerous lawmakers looking to establish a distinct brand, Banks insisted, “Hopefully, I’m a lot like the people of my district. We’re a real family with three little girls and we’re trying to figure out life in the midst of public service. I hope if anything, I’m known for that.”
The freshman Indiana lawmaker is a passionate supporter of Israel. On his campaign website, he lists support for the Jewish state as one of his top 10 most important issues. While the Trump administration declined to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem or clarify whether the Western Wall is part of Israel, Banks emphasized, “the United States must recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.” While a growing contingent of Congressional Republicans oppose any future Palestinian independence, Banks noted that he does back a two state solution provided there is appropriate Palestinian leadership. When asked about the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he noted, “I have a lot to learn about these issues. I try not to approach them as too much of an ideologue.” At the same time, the 37 year old Hoosier Republican stressed the importance of the US providing Israel with sufficient military aid. “The stronger that Israel is the better off America is. I believe anything America can do to further support a strong Israel is the greatest deterrent to those who aren’t acting in the best interest of America and creating havoc in that part of the world,” he added.
Banks preferred to conduct the interview in his office lobby with phones constantly ringing and interns answering questions from constituents. His six-year-old daughter, Lilly, darted into the room during the middle of the conversation and jumped onto the lap of Banks’ Press Secretary Anna Swick. It was the Congressman’s turn to watch his oldest child, a week-long endeavor that involved her running around the Halls of Congress. “It’s a terrifying week for both of us because she’s here all alone. Fortunately, we have some staffers who she likes,” Jim said. Later in the interview when describing his military service overseas, the straight-laced Congressman addressed his oldest child, “It was hard, Lilly, when Daddy was in Afghanistan and Mommy was working in the state house.” Banks solidly won his northeastern Indiana district in the 2016 race, outperforming Trump by nine points in Allen County. The fact that his Democratic opponent was a jobless high-school dropout likely didn’t hurt.
Similar to other GOP lawmakers, Banks has faced a difficult challenge balancing his own values while representing a conservative district where 70 percent of voters supported Trump. Just two weeks before the 2016 election, the Hoosier Republican told the National Review, “Trump is extremely flawed. I’m sad that we’ve set the bar as low as we have when so much is at stake.” When asked on Friday to elaborate on the remark, Banks offered a more diplomatic response. “Trump remains very popular in my district because he represents a sentiment that is strong in my district that we need to reform the way Washington works: solve the big issues of the day from healthcare to getting this economy growing,” Banks asserted. However, the Indiana lawmaker continued to rebuke Trump citing the real estate mogul’s “crude” comments and specifically citing the notorious Access Hollywood tape. “Every week there is an opportunity to criticize the President when he deserves it and praise him when he deserves it on different issues,” Banks remarked.
Banks explained he was humbled when his wife replaced him as State Senator. “Everyday since I have been told how much better of a job she did than me.” For Banks, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, military service remains an important theme. “For eight months of my life, to wake up and put on my uniform and serve my country, that is why I wanted to serve in the military and it was powerful for me every single day and it’s something that I’ll never forget that.”
Jewish Insider: What motivated you to run for Congress?
Rep. Jim Banks: “I served in the state senate for six years and I took a leave of absence to deploy to Afghanistan. While I was deployed, my predecessor announced that he was running for the Senate. So, I came home, walked off the plane and immediately became a candidate. It struck me that my experience in Afghanistan was unique and that I am the most recently deployed member of Congress and that valuable experience could lend itself a great deal of credibility to what I do here. I was excited to run. I felt like I had a responsibility to run and be a problem solver on Capitol Hill. What I saw with my own eyes in Afghanistan was a weakened and decimated military and a posture in Afghanistan that made little sense to me. I was there at the end of Operation Enduring Freedom and the beginning of Freedom Sentinel so that it wasn’t the beginning of the drawdown, it was the official end of the longest war in American history and everything that we have seen since then has been a disaster with the Taliban capturing substantial regions and provinces that they haven’t held since 9/11. It was very disappointing to watch with my own eyes.”
JI: What was the most powerful moment from your military service in Afghanistan?
Banks: “The most powerful moment for me was very personal. The unique situation of being an elected state senator and receiving my orders and activating a little-known state statute that allowed for a temporary leave of absence to be replaced set up a fabulous system that nobody in our state ever dealt with before. When I got to Afghanistan in early September, the process had already begun for me to be on the ballot for reelection so and on Election Day in November I was re-elected while deployed in Afghanistan. I didn’t have an opponent, which made it a little easier to be reelected. So, that set up a process where I had to take a leave of absence and activate the statute, I had to take the oath of office when I was reelected, but I was in Afghanistan. So, the state Supreme Court and state Senate went to work and the Supreme Court signed off on me allowing to be sworn in by Skype. I was surrounded by the fellow officers in my unit and it was sort of the juxtaposition of my military service and my political service all in the same place. It was a very powerful moment for me. For eight months of my life, to wake up and put on my uniform and serve my country, that is why I wanted to serve in the military and it was powerful for me every single day and it’s something that I’ll never forget that.”
JI: Can you please describe how it was when your wife replaced you to serve in the state legislature when you were overseas?
Banks: “So the state statute allows for a temporary—this is my oldest daughter Lily, she is shadowing me this week and we’re going home later today. It’s a terrifying week for both of us because she’s here all alone. Fortunately, we have some staffers who she likes. 120 precinct committee members and elected my wife to replace me. She struggled with the idea initially, but she grew to support the idea of running. She has a political background herself. She wanted to serve in her own way when I was serving in my way. We have three young daughters. It was hard Lilly when Daddy was in Afghanistan and Mommy was working in the state house. So, she moved in with her mom who helped take care of the girls. Every day since I have been told how much better of a job she did than me. I believe it because she took on the role and dived head first into it. She worked on big issues: education, veteran issues. We often joke that while I was in Afghanistan, she was in the midst of the big religious liberty issue: which one of us is in more of a tumultuous situation? I was very proud of her. It was never something she wanted or asked to do.”
JI: How would you assess President Trump’s mediation between Israelis and Palestinians to achieve the “ultimate deal?”
Banks: “We are a long way off from drawing any conclusions. So far, I have been pleased with the rhetoric of the campaign to his early leadership in his administration: the attention that he has provided Israel by visiting and Netanyahu very graciously has shown support for President Trump and his interactions. That goes a long way in telling me that this president is fulfilling a pro-Israel agenda that he campaigned on.”
JI: Republicans in Congress are divided on the possibility of Palestinian sovereignty. Do you support a two state solution?
Banks: “I have a lot to learn about these issues. I try not to approach them as too much of an ideologue. In my experience serving in Afghanistan to serving in Congress believe fundamentally that the stronger that Israel is the better off America is and Israel is securing peace in that region so I believe anything America can do to further support a strong Israel is the greatest deterrent to those who aren’t acting in the best interest of America and creating havoc in that part of the world.”
JI: Just to fully understand your position, do you back a two state solution?
Banks: “Yes, I could support a two state solution.”
JI: Putting aside your political views and military service, what makes you unique among the 535 Members of Congress?
Banks: “I don’t know if I’m unique or not: I’ll let others draw that conclusion. I would say my experience deploying the most recent deployment as a Member of Congress especially in combat. I hope I’m rather boring. I hope I bring some authenticity to the job. We’re a real family with three little girls and we’re trying to figure out life in the midst of public service. I hope if anything, I’m known for that. We’re real people who just want to make a difference and serve. I don’t know if it’s worth your time or the readers to try and identify something that makes me unique because that is not the point why I’m here representing the district. Hopefully, I’m a lot like the people of my district. What I was part of in Indiana from 2010 when I was elected in the state legislature to 2016 when I left was a revival of our state with a roadmap of tax cuts, economic growth and reforms with budget surpluses that made Indiana the envy of the rest of the country.”
JI: During the campaign, you called President Trump “flawed.” Can you please explain?
Banks: “I believe that during the election cycle we knew that candidate Trump wasn’t perfect and we’ve seen early stages of the administration. Yet, despite being imperfect, there is a lot that I have come to appreciate. There were flawed and crude comments, Access Hollywood. In spite of that, he’s brought a reform minded agenda from the nomination of Gorsuch to other economic reforms, the advances of the health care and some of the National Security efforts. Every week there is an opportunity to criticize the president when he deserves it and praise him when he deserves it on different issues. He remains very popular in my district because he represents a sentiment that is strong in my district that we need to reform the way Washington works: solve the big issues of the day from healthcare to getting this economy growing. That being said, the frenzy environment on Capitol Hill and the distractions that are brought out by the President himself limit our ability to implement the agenda many of us campaigned on.”
JI: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Banks: “I’m new to the job and learning something new every day. It’s a difficult job at times and balancing a bunch of competing interests. I hope to make a difference, especially in the Armed Services Committee and rebuilding our military and being the best advocate I can be for the troops abroad.”