Originally Published: August 8, 2011 9:59 p.m.
WASHINGTON - A year ago, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff, was a dentist whose only government experience was as vice-chair of the American Dental Association's lobbying arm.
"'Drill, baby, drill' meant something completely different to me," Gosar joked recently.
But that was before he unseated Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Flagstaff, in November. Before 20-hour days juggling committee hearings, constituent meetings and floor votes, while trying to keep up to date on issues.
Before the shocking attack that wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Tucson, and 12 others and killed six people.
Before the largest wildfire in Arizona history burned more than a half-million acres in Gosar's district and before the nation went to the brink of default for the first time ever.
"For most freshman classes, the first year - at least the first six to eight months - is kind of a gearing-up time," said Erin Kanoy, director of House relations for the conservative Heritage Action for America. "This freshman class ... has been thrown into the deep end."
While it's been a challenging start, Gosar - one of 96 freshmen in Congress this year and one of three from Arizona - said he's satisfied with his term so far.
"The work we told our people was going to get done, we've done," he said.
His office this month issued a news release calling Gosar "one of the five most-active and accomplished freshmen" in this class, citing the number of bills he sponsored, the number of constituent letters written and the number of town hall meetings he held.
Not everyone agrees.
"If people on the street were asked, 'What has Paul Gosar done for you lately?' I don't think people in northern Arizona would be able to answer that very well," said Jacqueline Vaughn, a Northern Arizona University professor of politics and international affairs.
Vaughn gives Gosar a grade of C-minus for what she calls a limited agenda. She said he has made fewer appearances in his hometown than voters might expect.
A spokeswoman said Gosar visited Flagstaff eight times in 13 trips to Arizona this year, holding a town hall and meeting with local officials. Much of his district time was taken up by the Wallow Fire, which burned from May 29 to July 8.
But Andy Roth of the Club for Growth, like Vaughn, thinks that merits only a passing grade.
"It's clear that he's not one of the standout rock stars that have emerged so far," said Roth, vice president of government affairs for the conservative lobbying group.
"Maybe he's just a freshman who's trying to get his feet wet - and that's fine - but there's a lot of other freshmen out there who are moving at full speed," Roth said, including fellow Arizona Rep. David Schweikert, R-Scottsdale.
Gosar hasn't been sitting on his hands. He sponsored eight bills - including two that had stalled in the previous Congress - introducing the first within a month of taking office. Seven of his bills deal directly with the 1st District, a focus Kanoy noted.
"Gosar's taken the bull by the horns, and he is very determined to represent Arizona 1 in Washington," she said.
His most-noticeable legislation has been the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act. His is the 10th version of a bill that would allow the government and Resolution Copper to swap of thousands of acres of land, and his is the first to get out of a House committee.
The freshman's efforts to rework the bill and finally get it passed impressed the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, on which Gosar serves.
"When there was a new individual that came in who was an advocate of that (bill), clearly I was going to listen," said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash. "I was glad to have him on my committee with that attitude."
But while Hastings praised Gosar's work, Roth challenged his voting record: He said Gosar's record is more conservative than an average Republican's, but that he hasn't had the impact of other GOP freshmen. "Overall, I think he is not as conservative as his colleagues in the Arizona delegation," Roth said.
Gosar was the only Arizona Republican to support the recently passed debt-limit deal. He would have been the only Arizona 'yes' vote if Giffords, a Democrat, had not made a surprise return to Washington to vote for the bill.
Gosar calls that bipartisanship; Roth says it shows the ideological gap between Gosar and other Arizona Republicans. He called Gosar's debt-ceiling vote "a disqualifier" for keeping the tea party label that helped him unseat Kirkpatrick.
Keeping that support could be key for Gosar, who faces a tough challenge as Kirkpatrick seeks to get her old job back.
Vaughn said it will be hard for Gosar to compete with Kirkpatrick's substantial base of Washington support and her fundraising lead: She had $215,723 in the bank as of June 30, to Gosar's $138,392, according to the Federal Election Commission. Improving his conservative image and keeping the tea party support he had in 2010 may be the best way for Gosar to compete, Vaughn said.
"If I were involved in his campaign, that's my recommendation to him, to piggyback on to the tea party," she said.
But Kanoy believes this freshman class's trial by fire should benefit it as freshmen seek re-election.
For his part, Gosar downplays concerns about the 2012 election. Gosar, who was endorsed by Sarah Palin in 2010, would welcome the tea party label again.
"There's nothing wrong with it. I love it. I'm tea party, and I think that's cool," Gosar said. But he's committed to doing his job and said he's going to "let the chips fall where they may."
That may be because Gosar and other incoming conservatives saw their mission differently than typical freshman, one expert said.
"They believed they were going to Washington to pull the leadership back on the right path or get rid of them if they couldn't," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institute.
Gosar said he knew before taking office that keeping everyone happy in his sprawling 59,000-square-mile district was going to be tough.
"Somebody taught me long ago ... you're not going to please everybody," he said. "It's an impossibility. It's just not going to work."
For him, the job is just about proving himself to his constituents. And, ever the dentist, he has a tooth metaphor for it.
"I truly do believe that there's a rotten molar in this federal government," he said. "It may be spending. It may be our attitude. It may be how we work.
"And if I'm that guy that gets us started to pull that molar to get this back on track, I did my job."