By Kim Lee
The United States House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. is a pretty impressive destination for any young political hopeful.
But the house floor is precisely where Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), 1990 University of South Dakota alumnus, has found himself, advocating for the issues he and the people of the Texas district he serves are passionate about.
In November 2015, the representative was handed the chair’s gavel for the House Ways and Means Committee after a hotly-contested race against Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio).Ways and Means is a 39-member panel where legislation on taxes, trade, Medicare and Social Security begins, and is regarded as one of the most powerful panels on Capitol Hill. Brady succeeded former Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who stepped down after he was elected speaker of the house.
Sixty-year-old Brady describes himself as a Republican who “gets things done.” He has advocated for lower taxes, deficit reduction and free trade, and has called for replacing the income tax with a national sales tax.
Early career trajectory may have implied that he would end up in such a prestigious role, since Brady was a leader on campus at USD, in chamber of commerce work and in Texas politics.
Brady’s father attended the USD School of Law, and Brady was born in Vermillion, but the family would eventually put down roots in Rapid City. Brady’s mother was a native of Bonesteel, and his father from Custer. As a high school student, Brady served as student body president and was a four-sport athlete, graduating from Rapid City Central High School in 1973.
After graduation, Brady found himself back in Vermillion and at the University of South Dakota. Originally a political science major, Brady, like many students, wavered when it came to where to focus his energies. “I wasn’t doing well, academically,” he admitted. “I knew I had to straighten myself out. So I left the university at the beginning of my junior year, and then came back with a whole different focus and a major in communications and public relations.”
Brady fondly remembers afternoons playing baseball in center field, a Doc Farber lecture, the quad area, Dakota Days, Lambda Chi, Strollers, events, and summers spent in Vermillion. It wasn’t all play, though, since he also worked various jobs: curb and gutter construction, at Wine N' Del and a meat packing plant, and as a bartender. “I worked any job I could find in order to support myself,” he said.
Late in his time at USD, Brady also did work study in university relations under then-Vice President for University Relations Ted Muenster. “I learned so much about the university in those few months. That time was influential because I really got to see the breadth and achievement of the university,” he said. “It was an eye opener for me—a kid who didn’t know what he wanted to do.” Brady pointed to a few inspirations from his time at USD. “Doc Farber was a major influence, because he was a force of nature. He was such a positive person who would help you reach your potential. I owe a lot to my involvement in Lambda Chi, from the standpoint of lifelong friendships.”
After leaving USD, Brady moved back to Rapid City and found himself in chamber of commerce work, which would turn out to be the perfect stepping stone. “I thought if I could see how a community worked, and watch community leaders, then I would figure a lot out,” Brady explained. “I discovered through that job that I love helping build community and recruit new industry, which eventually led to public service.” Although prospects were looking bright for Brady in Rapid City—he had recently been elected to city council—Brady simply couldn’t turn down an opportunity that arose in faraway southeast Texas.
'Doc Farber was a major influence, because he was a force of nature. He was such a positive person who would help you reach your potential.'
“The opportunity to move to a state where no one knew me, where I was going to have to earn my way, just to see if I could do it, was the lure of going to Texas. So I went. “That opportunity was in Beaumont, Texas. In 1982, Brady moved to Texas to work for the Beaumont Chamber of Commerce. Later, he would work for the South Montgomery County, Woodlands Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber work panned out for Brady personally as well as professionally, as he met his wife, Cathy, at The Woodlands Chamber of Commerce, where she spent time as a volunteer. The couple now has two sons—Will, in the 11th grade, and Sean, in the 7th grade.
Brady’s political career began in 1990 when he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, representing The Woodlands, parts of Montgomery County, and five other counties west and north of Houston. In 1997, Brady was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Texas’s 8th congressional district, a position he still holds. He was chair of the House Joint Economic Committee 2013–2015, then earned his current position in the House Ways and Means Committee, an endeavor that brings him great pride.
“What I love about Ways and Means is that you can make a difference in the big issues facing the country,” Brady stated. “Fixing the broken tax code and making America competitive again, for example, have to start in Ways and Means. It’s a top priority. We are working very aggressively in that area right now to be ready for a new president to do that.
“All these issues have to be led by the Ways and Means Committee, so those are my primary issues," he continued. “They’re all big issues and all incredibly complex; but they are all solvable. They have two or three good solutions if we have the courage to pursue them.”
'What I love about Ways and Means is that you can make a difference in the big issues facing the country. Fixing the broken tax code and making America competitive again, for example, have to start in Ways and Means. It’s a top priority.'
Although Brady’s been elevated to one of the most prominent positions in government, it’s imperative to Brady and his family that he stays grounded, despite the fact that three out of every four weeks of his time are spent in Washington, D.C. Brady commutes to his residence in The Woodlands, logging thousands of miles on Continental Airlines.
“It keeps me out of that Washington bubble,” he explained. “I do more than 50 town hall meetings a year in The Woodlands. It’s important that I stay accessible back home, especially in a time when people believe that Congress and elected officials are disconnected and don’t know what it’s like. But I do know, because I’m home every day there isn’t a gavel.”
He makes time to attend hometown functions, to go to his sons’ functions and in general, to be seen. “One of the commitments I made when I took over the Ways and Means Committee was to keep my family’s schedule,” he said. “And yes, I have a significantly larger role now but protecting my family time and schedule is really important. And it’s doable. You just have to make some changes.”
There are a lot of common values between South Dakotans and Texans, said Brady. “South Dakotans have great work ethic, and are great at giving back to community. Here at USD you could do that any way you wanted to and create great friendships along the way.” All these years later, Brady still gets together with college friends at least every other year, in either the Black Hills or Wisconsin. With just a barely-perceptible southern lilt in his voice, he acknowledged he “catches heck” for his accent when he returns to South Dakota.
Brady admitted his allegiances can get confusing at times. In 2010, when the Coyote football team played Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas—part of the district he serves—it presented somewhat of a moral dilemma. “I’m not going to say who I rooted for,” he laughed, “But it was a lot of fun.”
Brady lauds the leaders who have emerged from his home state. “We’ve had remarkable leaders—McGovern, Daschle, Thune, Kristi Noem," he said. "South Dakota has always had great representation, great leaders.”
Brady believes his strong South Dakota-grown work ethic has served him well as a chamber executive and in elected office. “What you’re trying to do is make a difference, to find solutions, to improve things,” he explained. “When you’re trying to solve the big problems you’ve got to find some common ground with others. That pragmatism and that belief that if you can find a solution, you have a responsibility to do so comes from South Dakota and the values I learned in South Dakota.”
Back on campus in April 2016 for the University of South Dakota’s Alpha-Gamma chapter of Lambda Chi Alpha’s 100th anniversary celebration, Brady reflected on his memories of a bustling campus.
He holds fond recollections of playing baseball for the Coyotes and being active in Student Government Association, publications board and the Lambda Chi interfraternity council and dance marathon, which benefited the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“Being on campus brings up a sense of pride,” he said. “I love telling people I’m from South Dakota.”
'What you’re trying to do is make a difference, to find solutions, to improve things. When you’re trying to solve the big problems you’ve got to find some common ground with others. That pragmatism and that belief that if you can find a solution, you have a responsibility to do so comes from South Dakota and the values I learned in South Dakota.'
In 2005, he was named a distinguished alumnus of USD, and in 2001, he was a recipient of the Order of Achievement by the national Lambda Chi Alpha organization, an honor presented to those brothers who have distinguished themselves by outstanding accomplishment in their chosen field and serve as role models through their success.
“At USD there is a lot of green-light thinking. You can be involved in anything you choose,” Brady commented. “It’s a welcoming atmosphere, and you knew people. It wasn’t uncommon to be in different groups with the same people and all were engaged.”
Perhaps it is that diverse involvement that now feeds his passion for reforming the issues America faces.
“Where besides USD would you be exposed to a Doc Farber?” he mused. “Where else would you get the well-rounded opportunity to be involved in anything you want to be involved in? At USD, you could. It was remarkable. Anything was possible at USD. You could do anything. “That springboard to never-ending possibilities humbles the man who got his start in South Dakota and at USD.
“I have trouble sleeping some nights because I’m excited for the next day’s work. I’m still pinching myself.”