He flew off the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln the day before former President George W. Bush flew in, announcing "Mission Accomplished" in full flight gear.
In 2003, as the statue of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was being torn down, Lieutenant Commander Jim Bridenstine was flying overhead.
Conservative Republican Bridenstine is a handsome 36-year-old, a veteran combat pilot for the Navy, Jenks family man and former executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum.
And he also may be U.S. Rep. John Sullivan's worst nightmare. The congressman, who's represented Oklahoma's 1st District (which includes Tulsa) since 2001, is set to face off against Bridenstine for the U.S. House in 2012.
Besides Bridenstine and Sullivan, no other candidates have filed with the state election board for the spot. Recently, some of Sullivan's votes -- most notably his 'yes' vote on the bill to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) -- have raised the ire of some conservative Oklahomans.
Bridenstine, in an exclusive interview with UTW, talked about his differences with Sullivan; his career in the Navy and experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan; and why he decided to seek the U.S. Congress'
"We have soldiers dying every day in Afghanistan," Bridenstine said. "They have given the ultimate sacrifice, while we have politicians that are so self-indulgent and so self-absorbed, they only want to get re-elected. Somebody has got to step up and say, 'This country is worth saving.'
"And these politicians aren't getting it done. Somebody's got to run," he said.
"It's a calling"
After graduating from Jenks High School in 1993, Bridenstine went on to earn a degree from Rice University. After college, he said, "I began interviewing with investment banking firms, and I had a lot of opportunities," but he wanted more than money. He wanted meaningful work.
"I had to sacrifice a lot of money and opportunity to serve my country," he said. So he took the flight aptitude test with the Navy. Before he knew it, he was flying an E2 Hawkeye, running airborne battle control over the entire theater of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About flying, he said, "You get addicted to it, really."
This was 2003, when many were still hopeful about winning an easy arm wrestle with the Middle Eastern countries; statues fell, and people danced in the streets, at least for the American media.
"As the troops were marching toward Baghdad, they'd talk to us on radio," Bridenstine said. The Hawkeyes let the troops on the ground know what was coming toward them -- tanks, armored personnel, civilians. Part of his job was communication, another part was matching the right weapons and guidance systems to the situation.
"We called ourselves the 'quarterbacks in the sky,'" he said.
He was at sea for 10 months at the start of the Iraq War, aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. But Bridenstine wanted to set the record straight on a few of the details surrounding one of Bush's biggest media missteps at the beginning of the war.
"That banner was hung before the president ever got out there," Bridenstine said, "Days ahead of time." They'd hung a banner in honor of accomplishing their specific missions without losing a single person, he said.
He left the Navy in 2007, and got a master's degree from Cornell University. "While I was out there," he said, "I got married and had my first child."
When he finished up at Cornell, the Bridenstines headed back to Tulsa after he accepted a position as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum in 2009.
Within the past year, Bridenstine, a Navy Reservist, "received a set of military orders" to ship out for about four months. Bridenstine flew counter-illicit trafficking operations -- a technical term for the interception of boats filled with "cocain or young girls or arms," he said -- in the Caribbean and South America.
When he returned from his mission, Bridenstine created the exploratory committee to run for U.S. Congress.
On the Issues
Bridenstine disagrees with Sullivan on a number of issues, and said he was frustrated with some of Sullivan's decisions on key votes in the House. "If in 10 years you vote to raise the debt ceiling 10 times, something isn't going well and we need to change something," he said.
"And he voted for TARP, a program that's supposed to purchase troubled assets, but allowed government takeover of financial institutions and ultimately General Motors," Bridenstine said.
"That is not a bill I would've voted for."
Sullivan also "created the Super Committee, which did not represent Oklahoma," Bridenstine said. "The Super Committee was created to raise taxes without any representation from Oklahoma or constitutional protections."
Bridenstine supports a more targeted approach to the war on drugs, and also wants to see a more secure southern border. "Most developed countries protect their borders," he said.
On the federal budget deficit, Bridenstine said, "We have a government that is spending $1.3 trillion more than we bring in. The only way that we're funding that is by having the Federal Reserve print money. When we do that, the U.S. dollar gets destroyed."
Our country, he said, is not "attracting capital the way we used to ... Businesses don't get created, they don't grow."
Bridenstine places the blame, in part, on "politicians who are so committed to getting re-elected," and not as committed to fixing the problems.
He supports the continued construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
When asked about whether or not he'd be willing to sign Grover Norquist's petition to oppose all efforts to increase the marginal income tax rates and to oppose elimination of deductions and credits, Bridenstine said, "I would be happy to sign it."
All but one of the Republican presidential candidates has already signed it.
And speaking of the current presidential candidates, which one does Bridenstine support? "I would support any one of them over the current president," he said. "I am undecided, though I think a few are better than others."
A House of Cards
In an uncertain economy, it's a tough time to be a candidate. Bridenstine admitted the national economy is "a house of cards."
"It's very different now than it's ever been," he said. "Our banking systems are so entwined worldwide. Global economic problems are so interconnected.
"What affects us affects the world," Bridenstine said, "and what affects the world affects us.
He believes there is too much confusion and uncertainty, and too little accountability in our economy. "Nobody knows what's going to happen once Obamacare comes into effect," he said, a clear detractor of the president's health care plan.
"Objectively, we can't stay on the same course we've been on," he said. "Tightening our belt and fiscal responsibility -- those ideas are going to upset some people."
He's new to the political scene, and is shaping himself into the image of a hard-line conservative and a straight-shooter. Progressives and Democrats won't like his social policies, but he's up-front about his opinions.
Bridenstine doesn't support stem-cell research. When asked about his position on gay marriage, he spouted the conservative gold standard: "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, and between one man and one woman. And to the extent that the law supports traditional marriage, I would support that," he said.
"I answer absolutely honestly with what I believe, knowing I might alienate some people," Bridenstine said. "People have to put all their ideas on the table, and then make the electorate make a decision. Even if that means some people are going to work against me, I'm OK with that. As long as I stay true to what I believe."
Bridenstine's camp has attempted to contact Sullivan about holding public debates, but the congressman has yet to respond. Both Oral Roberts University and Oklahoma Wesleyan University's Tulsa campus have expressed interest in holding debates for the candidates.
But why now, and why run against Sullivan? "People ask me why, as a Republican, why I would challenge an entrenched, well-funded politician," he said. "I think it's important for our democracy to have options, not just options in a general election, but a robust discussion in the primary."
With an assured Navy pilot smile, Bridenstine added, "I'm willing to engage in this process, and I love to win."
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