The first school student to raise a hand when touring the Capitol with U.S. Rep. Todd Platts almost always wants to know whether he has a limo and driver or a security guard, and how much money he makes.

A six-digit salary -- $174,000 -- might impress them.

But the hybrid Toyota the congressman proudly drives himself barely gets a better reaction than back when he had to admit he was driving a minivan.

A 50-year-old legislator who insists -- whether nobly or stubbornly -- on driving the 394-mile, four-hour round trip from his York home to Rayburn House Office Building every day might be unimpressive to middle school students when juxtaposed with rock stars and teen-idol athletes.

But Platts' trading-card highlights include a mission to a Darfur refugee camp, flying knee-to-knee on Marine One with a president, and his two sons sitting on the floor at President George W. Bush's feet to watch

"Perfect Game" with him and first lady Laura Bush.

While he's willing to share some of the "cool" stories with the kids because he'd rather he be their role model, he seems otherwise embarrassed by the clout of his office and has made a mission, he said, of staying grounded.

'Uh, it's me': When Platts drives up to the gate in his Prius, Rayburn security guards look behind him for "the real congressman," he said.

"They're looking for the member in the back and I'm like, 'Uh, it's me,'" Platts told a guest in his car during a recent morning commute. He touched a round metal badge on his lapel, the official security pin for members of the 112th Congress. "I want people to know I'm just a husband, a dad, a citizen in the commonwealth, and I'm no different than them."

Around the Capitol, people see the pin and react with a slightly more subtle change of demeanor than a soldier's "attention" when a high-ranking officer walks in the room. He first noticed it during his orientation in 2001, he said.

He was driving near the Capitol, his then chief-of-staff Bryan Tate in a passenger seat. A guard, recognizing Platts as a congressman, was "shooing tourists away" from the car so he could pass, Platts said.

"Bryan said I could run over one of them and the guard would come over and say, 'What are you doing under that car?'" Platts said. "There's an over-deference to members."

Female staff workers, about to board an elevator in the Rayburn building at the same time as Platts, will see his lapel pin and motion for him to enter the elevator first. He tells them his deceased father, a chivalrous man, is watching over him, and he insists the females enter.

"My parents wouldn't tolerate me having a big head," he said. "You can't get caught up in that Beltway mentality."

U.S. Rep. Todd Platts gestures to a staff member while passing a trio of statues in the U.S. Capitol.
U.S. Rep. Todd Platts gestures to a staff member while passing a trio of statues in the U.S. Capitol. (Bill Kalina)

Getting started: Platts leaves his house in Spring Garden Township's Wyndham Hills around 7:30 a.m., the departure following a common weekday morning exchange of downstairs parents calling upstairs to groggy children who call back down that they're almost ready.

He swings past York Suburban High School to drop off oldest son TJ, a 10th-grader, while wife Leslie takes Tom, their eighth-grader. The boys, now 16 and 13, were 4 and 1 when their father took office in Congress.

His political career predates both of them, as he spent eight years as a state representative .

Tom was 3 months old in 1999, when Platts announced his plans to join a crowded field of Republican candidates vying for the seat opening with the retirement of Bill Goodling. He had wanted to be a congressman since he was a ninth-grader at York Suburban, volunteering on Goodling's campaign.

He vowed to run a grassroots campaign and thus named it "People for Platts," also pledging not to accept money from political action committees. He also promised a self-imposed 12-year term limit, a pledge that 12 years later is the reason for his retirement.

His competitors outspent his $145,000 campaign. He had no paid pollsters or consultants, and his mom coordinated potlucks for campaign food.

Campaign finance: Platts said the lack of frills won him the race, along with his simple "Reflex Blue" yard signs.

He'll leave Congress having never paid for a TV commercial and remains one of few congressmen in recent history to only accept campaign money from individuals. It's a legacy that won't be carried on when Rep.-elect Scott Perry takes office next month.

"I wish all candidates would take my approach, grass roots," Platts said. "I think Scott's going to do a good job, but I know I'm not going to agree with him on every single issue, and unfortunately campaign finance reform is one of those issues."

Platts said he disagrees with the Supreme Court's decision that a corporation is an individual, that "the founding fathers wanted to say Exxon Mobil has the same right to donate as John Smith."

"I would like to see that overturned," he said. "If a law firm in Philly can give $200,000 to a judge candidate it will likely appear before. ... That's obviously trying to buy influence."

He said money will continue to have too much influence on campaigns until voters say they've had enough and "demand different of their candidates."

__________

Talking to Todd Platts

U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, R-York County, recently took The York Dispatch along for his drive to Washington, D.C., and a tour of his office and the Capitol. Below is a highlight from conversations during the day.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Platts said he's narrowed his post-congressional plans to three options.

1) Continue working in Washington, D.C., using his committee experience to work on educational or military policy issues,

2) Higher education leadership or administration, or

3) Running for Common Pleas Court in York County, or using his legal background and training "in some way."

"It's about service," he said. "It's not a step back or down."

He said he'll make a final decision in early to mid-January.

-- Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.