The last car guy in Congress

MONTEREY, Calif. -- Most of our esteemed legislators on Capitol Hill wouldn't know a piston from a pistol. Then there's John Campbell.

Campbell, who for 25 years sold Nissans, Mazdas, Saturns, Fords and Saabs in Orange County, Calif., turned in his dealer's shingle when he was first elected to Congress in a special election in 2005. But he hasn't lost his car-guy credentials.

Campbell, a Republican representing south Orange County, may be best known lately for protecting car dealers during the recent financial-services overhaul. Campbell ensured that dealers were excluded from the provisions of the bill, which more tightly regulated the powers of big-time consumer lenders when it became law.

An accountant by trade, Campbell has quickly established himself on three powerful committees on financial services, the budget, and the economy. And he is making sure car dealers get a fair shake on the hill.

“I may be the last car guy in the House,” Campbell said, not bragging, but rather with a sense of sadness. “The other two guys are gone now.”

I saw the 55-year-old Campbell this past weekend not at some government function. Rather, he was at The Quail, one of the several gatherings of collector automobile enthusiasts here at Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance weekend.

This was not some photo-op. Campbell was there to stroll amongst the sheet metal.

Campbell also was witness to an intimate forum, sponsored by Hagerty Insurance, on the future of collectible cars. He wasn't participating, nor grandstanding. He just showed up to hear what people had to say. Campbell's politics may not align with mine, but I have to admire that sort of grass-roots politics.

A collector himself, Campbell brought a 1947 Mercury Woodie to show at Concours On The Avenue in Carmel last Tuesday.

In an era when many old cars get lost in the shuffle because kids don't know what to do with their parents' garages-full of stuff, Campbell is making sure his children know their automotive history.

Campbell taught his kids to drive stick shifts, and each child has a collector car to call his own, one an Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite, the other a vintage Saab 900.

One last thing: It's been more than a few years since I last interviewed Campbell. In that time, he's probably met thousands of constituents, lobbyists, journalists and jes' plain folks. But he spotted me and addressed me by name.

Now that's just good politics.