Joni Ernst remembers John McCain as mentor and role model, even when they quarreled

By: Kathie Obradovich, The Des Moines Register

Ask Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst about her friend and mentor, Sen. John McCain, and one of the first stories she tells is about a time when he was hopping mad at her.

Ernst, the first female combat veteran in the U.S. Senate, serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which McCain chaired. He recruited her for the committee before she was even elected, she said, and he mentored not only the veterans but all of the freshmen in her 2015 class.

“I remember the first time we had a big — it was a big blowout —over a vote I took,” Ernst said.

She had voted against an omnibus spending bill that included, among other things, money for veterans’ programs that McCain was supporting. “I was explaining my position to him and he was just so furious at me,” she said.

McCain tried to freeze Ernst out, she said, but she wouldn’t let him. “I kept after him,” she said. “I said, ‘John, you cannot not talk to me.’”

She kept seeking him out, insisting he try to understand her position. Finally, she said, he gave up. “And he was like, ‘Joni, I just can’t stay mad at you, gol’ darn it.’

“We have that relationship. He wasn’t used to people standing up to him,” Ernst said. But at the same time, I loved him very dearly, and I know he returned that affection. We didn’t always agree on everything, but we had a deep respect for each other in spite of that. 

Here’s what Ernst said she learned from McCain about how to be a senator:  “One, to be tough and to stand firm on your principles.” She observed how McCain would keep going after witnesses testifying before the committee if he thought they were doing something wrong.

“While I try to be more tactful than John McCain, it did teach me to be firm, to be resolute, and to not back down when you disagree,” Ernst said.

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