WASHINGTON - Darrell Issa didn't earn his millions by thinking small. And he didn't come to Congress thinking that way either.
It's not enough, apparently that the self-made business tycoon in six short years has taken on a sitting governor, the Interior Department, a U.S. attorney from his hometown and a president of his own party.
Now, recent events position him to become a senior Republican voice for the San Diego delegation, an increasingly well known authority on Middle East politics and a leading force behind the Justice Department's scrutiny of illegal immigration prosecutions on the San Diego-Mexican border.
Whatever it is that drives the Republican congressman from Vista - some call it vision, others says it's overarching ambition - Issa started turning heads almost from the day he moved into Room No. 211 in the Cannon office building across the street from the Capitol.
"He's not a backbencher at this point," said Allan Hoffenblum, co-publisher of the nonpartisan California Target Book. "He is by far one of the better known House members in the California delegation. At least here in California, most Republicans know how to pronounce his name correctly."
(It's pronounced ICE-uh).
With his Lebanese-American roots, experience on the House International Relations Committee and extensive travels, Issa has long been an unofficial envoy to the Middle East, sometimes smoothing the way for later visits by Bush administration officials. But during a trip to the region in Apri, Issa displayed his notorious independent streak by saying Bush has failed to promote the dialogue necessary to resolve disagreements between the United States and Syria.
A White House spokesman lumped Issa with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, when he said their recent visits to the region weren't "helpful" or "productive."
"I'm not claiming to be a renegade," Issa said. "I'm still very align-able on many fronts with the Bush administration. I will disagree on occasion, and unlike people who serve at the pleasure of the president, I can disagree and tell that to the president and keep my job."
Hoffenblum notes, however, that Issa is "not the Lone Ranger" in breaking with his president on the Middle East.
"No one's been more critical of Bush's handling of Middle East politics than John McCain," he said, referring to the Arizona senator running for the GOP presidential nomination.
Now serving his fourth term - still a honeymoon period by some congressional standards - Issa has often displayed the characteristics that helped him turn a $7,000 investment into the hugely successful Directed Electronics Inc., which made him a multimillionaire, but which he no longer runs.
A quick study, tenacious and energetic, Issa has taken on intellectual property laws, promoted the use of hybrid cars, investigated the U.S. Interior Department's oil royalty program and used his own wealth to ignite the successful 2003 recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis. He may also have been the impetus for the recent firing of U.S. Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego.
The abrupt dismissal of Lam and seven other U.S. attorneys has made headlines in recent weeks. But newly released Justice Department emails reveal it was likely Issa's complaints three years ago that convinced Justice officials to look closely at Lam's relatively low number of illegal-immigration prosecutions.
"The administration is recognizing that the complaints by so many of us over a three-year period," Issa said. "We were being heard, and I feel good about that."
Many Democrats claim the Bush administration targeted Lam because of her investigations of corrupt Republicans such as former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of Rancho Santa Fe, who is now behind bars for taking bribes.
With last year's imprisonment of Cunningham and the coming departure of Alpine Rep. Duncan Hunter, who is running for the White House, Issa will soon be a senior Republican voice for the San Diego delegation, a mantle he shares with Bilbray, who served from 1995-2001 then returned to Congress last year.
Issa might still be learning that his influence in Congress will depend a lot on his people skills. Letters to Lam and others he disagrees with can seem terse and arrogant.
During a failed run for a GOP leadership post last year, Issa's office referred to his competitor's supporters as "imaginary friends." Some congressional Republicans say Issa's public causes can disguise his private ambitions. They say, for instance, that Issa's 2004 push to transfer the job of redrawing California's political boundaries from lawmakers to citizens was Issa's way to get even with Republican leaders who crafted Issa's new congressional district.
"He was upset that he was losing some beach communities-. and he didn't think they were putting enough Republicans in his district," one Republican source said. "He didn't get all he wanted, and the whole redistricting push by Darrell was really his way to get even."
Issa admits to "sophomoric times," and Bilbray agrees that when Issa first came to Congress "the difference between business and government (worlds) really was a bit of a culture shock for him."
"Darrell, when he first got here, ran into a brick wall," Bilbray said. "But since returning to Congress, I've seen somebody who is very well respected, very comfortable in what he does and doesn't need to prove himself anymore."