Adam Kinzinger, the 34-year-old Republican congressman from Illinois, considers September 11 2001 the first of two major, life-changing moments for him. The second came five years later, in 2006, when Kinzinger and his then-girlfriend were walking down Milwaukee’s North Avenue after having dinner with a friend.
“I hear this commotion and screaming and this girl is running at me across the street, and she’s just holding her throat, with blood pouring out,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve been in a situation where you’ve separated from your body almost, because it’s just unreal, and that was one of those.” Running up behind the injured woman was a man, her boyfriend, wielding a knife and donning what Kinzinger called a “psycho look.”
At that moment, the future congressman had two thoughts in his mind. The first was that, if he tried to save this woman, he was probably going to be killed in the process.
“I said, I’m going to get stabbed and I’m going to die,” Kinzinger says. “But the second thought that went through my head was, I can’t watch this happen to her and live with that memory for the rest of my life. And I don’t want to live with that. You know, because as a man, and especially as a military officer, you always like to think of yourself as a protector of people. I literally would have rather died than to have the thought of saying that I sissied out and ran.”
So he confronted the psychotic looking man and tried calm him down. When that didn’t work, he says, Kinzinger started yelling at him. “My goal is to get him pissed off at me so he runs after me, because I’ll outrun this fatty any day,” he says. “He was drunk, and he was schizophrenic. But a big dude.”
By this point, Kinzinger’s girlfriend had been trying to put the bleeding, scared woman into a car. The crazed man lunged toward his victim to finish the job. Kinzinger was at a decision point.
“If you ever have a fight-or-flee battle in your body, it’s a real thing. It’s not like psychological. It’s like your mind is saying ‘fight’ and your body’s saying ‘get the heck out of here.’ And literally, the fight thing won by probably an iota,” Kinzinger says. “Otherwise we’d be talking about the story of how I ran away from a girl getting murdered. I turned around and I saw him pull her out. He goes to stab her, and I grab him, I put my arm around him, and we actually grappled for probably a good 15, 20 seconds, where it’s a power struggle.” He says he doesn’t remember what happened next, only that he ended up on top of the man, with one hand pinning his face to the ground and the other pinning his knife-hand.
“And I remember, if I had a third hand, I was actually trying to kill him at that point,” Kinzinger says. A fellow bystander who had been watching, unsure of how to help, pounced on the man, and Kinzinger’s girlfriend kicked the knife out of his hand. The police showed up soon after and arrested the man for attempted murder. The woman got over 100 stitches in her neck and survived.
“That was a point when I realized, if you make a decision to give your life for something, which I did, it changes you,” he says. Almost every day since, he adds, he’s thought about that night and the lessons about leadership he learned from that experience.
“In a combat situation or in a real crazy situation, half of people will run, no matter what,” Kinzinger says. “Four-fifths of the remaining fifty percent will act only when told what to do. And ten percent will actually take control of the situation and lead. That’s what our military teaches officers, is how to not run and then not just do what’s told, but how to actually lead in that chaotic situation.”
Kinzinger, who has military experience, likes to think he’s part of that 10 percent in Congress, leading on the issues that matter and taking a stand on principle, even when the situation looks like a political loser. It’s how he says he approached the issue of entitlement reform, specifically the Medicare reforms of the House Republican budget, for which he voted. Since taking office in 2011, Kinzinger has held 50 town hall meetings—events his predecessor, Democrat Debbie Halvorson, was infamously reluctant to hold—and several of those meetings were at senior centers and with AARP members.
Kinzinger says the urge to go toe-to-toe with his opponents, political or otherwise, is just who he is. “I don’t like really running away from a fight much,” he shrugs.
In March, Kinzinger defeated fellow Republican House member Don Manzullo in a hard-fought primary. A Democratic legislature in Springfield had consolidated their adjoining districts, forcing the freshman to challenge a ten-term veteran. Kinzinger beat Manzullo, who was perceived as “more conservative,” 56 percent to 44 percent. Now he’s running unopposed for a second term.
“It’s tough,” Kinzinger says of taking on his elder in the party. “Because ultimately, we’re in the family. We’re brothers. We’re fighting for the same thing.”
Perhaps, but the party likes the way he fights. In his first two years, Kinzinger has become a favorite of the House Republican leadership. Majority leader Eric Cantor endorsed him in his primary. Chief deputy whip Peter Roskam, also of Illinois, says Kinzinger is highly regarded among his fellow House Republicans.
“He wears well. People like to be around him,” Roskam says. “He doesn’t speak every week [at caucus meetings], but when he does, people listen. He’s earned their respect.”
A deputy whip, Kinzinger has voted with the leadership on each of the contentious debt ceiling increase votes—though he also voted for the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” alternative plan of the conservative Republican Study Committee, of which he's a former member. He’s also a member of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.
But it’s not just Republicans who like working with Kinzinger. He’s co-authored a bill with Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski to create a federal “manufacturing competitiveness board.” He’s also been working with Democratic senator Mark Warner of Virginia on addressing an oxygen malfunction on the F-22 Raptor fighter jet, an issue that’s garnered him some national headlines. “His future is very bright,” Roskam says. “He’s all upside.”
We’re sitting in his Capitol Hill office, a cramped, dorm-sized room in an upstairs corner of the Longworth building—typical placement for a freshman, regardless of one’s star power potential. Amid the photos, books, and baubles often found in a congressman’s office are some revealing relics of his past. On the windowsill sits a heavy empty artillery shell. He picks it up and hands it to me.
“This is a 105-millimeter shell out of an AC-130 gunship,” says Kinzinger, a veteran Air Force pilot who still flies in the Air National Guard. “That was expended when I was in Iraq. Isn’t that cool?”
It is pretty cool, as are the smaller shells (45-millimeter and 25-millimeter) on display in an adjacent cabinet. Kinzinger says he keeps them for the “cool factor” as well as to remind him about his time served in Iraq.
A month after 9/11, Kinzinger signed up for the Air Force, first flying KC-135s, mid-air refuelers, in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Later on, while stationed in Iraq, he piloted RC-26 low-level reconnaissance planes. Now in Congress, he’s among the fiercest defenders of the wars and of military spending in the Tea Party Republican freshman class.
In December 2011, Kinzinger took the House floor and offered a stirring defense of the war in Afghanistan. “The easy thing to do is to stand up and say ‘Let’s just declare victory and let’s leave,’ and then whatever happens after we’re gone, it’s not our fault. It’s not our problem. That’s the easy thing to do,” he said. “You know the America I grew up in and continue to grow up in and live in is not the country that always picks the easy thing. The thing about the American DNA is I believe we do, typically, the right thing.”
Kinzinger is the youngest of eight veterans of the post-9/11 wars currently in the House, and is the fourth-youngest sitting congressman. Of the 21 under-40 congressmen, 14 are Republicans, and the 10 youngest members are all Republicans.
“What you’re seeing is this new generational movement is actually hitting the Republican party first,” Kinzinger says. “Our party is all about empowering the individual, and I think that is something that just naturally lends itself to [young people].”
But it could be generational as well. Several of these young Republicans, like Kinzinger, all came of political age during the early years of George W. Bush’s administration. Kinzinger’s parents are Republicans, and he says he always considered himself “hawkish” on national defense, but in his first presidential election in 1996, he voted for Ross Perot. As he grew older, he became less libertarian and more Republican.
“I’m a social conservative, obviously a fiscal conservative, and I believe that America is the best leader of the free world,” Kinzinger says. “And if we give up that mantle, we’re doomed.”