By Kent Walz / Journal Senior Editor
Saturday, July 21st, 2018 at 11:35pm
To Steve Pearce, the most important thing in life is how you respond to what he calls "no notice tests."
He has faced a number of those exams in his 70 years, beginning with his hardscrabble roots on a small farm near Hobbs through his time as a decorated pilot in Vietnam to his exceptional success with a small oil field services company – which barely survived the oil crash of 1999.
But the company did survive, and the kid who, along with five siblings, worked in the fields and raised pigs to buy their own clothes is a millionaire many times over and one of the wealthiest members of Congress, where he is serving his seventh term.
Now, the Hobbs Republican wants to be New Mexico's next governor and will face off against Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham of Albuquerque in November.
That's a test, or at least uphill battle, for any Republican based on voter registration numbers, but Pearce says he is proud of his reputation for getting out among the people – meeting and listening to them. He has easily retained his seat in a congressional district where Republicans are a minority.
"Democrats will vote for you, but they've got to know that you care and that you'll show up," he said. "My parents were registered Democrats, but I don't think they ever went to a political meeting. They just wanted to raise their family, take us to church, go to the fairs and pay the bills on time.
"So every day, I think I'm representing people like Mom and Dad."
Pearce was confronted with one of those tests – like many of his generation – in September 1967 when studying economics at New Mexico State University and entertaining the idea of law school.
"The law school plan got interrupted by winning the draft lottery," he said. "I was sitting in my dorm room when I got the call from the woman at the Lea County draft board. She said: 'Number 23 and we got to you fairly quick, so we're just going to have you go down to El Paso this afternoon and take your physical.' "
"You talk about a dose of reality."
There were no more deferments, so Pearce asked about the possibility of doing advanced ROTC.
She said, "that would work. I'll give you 24 hours, but don't be screwing around with me son, or I'll come over there and drive you to El Paso myself."
Pearce said two of his greatest fears growing up were "flying and dying" and when he got to ROTC, he was told the only slots left were for pilots, "because we're killing so many of them."
"So I didn't sign up and went back to my room and thought maybe the woman from the draft board would forget – typical college thing – but 24 hours on the dot, she calls and starts in the middle of a sentence and asked if I had gotten it done."
"I said, 'Ma'am you don't understand. They just need pilots and they're killing so many.' And she said 'that's OK son, they're killing them on the ground, too. Now get yourself to El Paso, or I'll come over and pick you up.'
"So I said, 'if you just give me five more minutes, I suddenly think I want to fly more than anything else in the world.' I went down and signed up for advanced ROTC. I still fly myself around and I love it. I just had to be pushed."
Pearce graduated in January 1970. He was in pilot training within 30 days.
"I tell people the fastest thing I'd been on up to that point was the tractor on our farm … and suddenly I find myself flying airplanes. It's the most incongruent thing you can imagine."
It wasn't long before Pearce was in the thick of it, flying C-130 military transport planes out of a base in the Philippines.
He logged 518 hours of combat flight and another 77 hours of combat support flying. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Air Medals. He served six years and attained the rank of captain.
C-130 flights were the lifeline to troops on the ground, carrying men, ammunition and other supplies. At one point, because he was single, he was tabbed for flights going into An Loc and missions out of Thailand.
"We learned later that what was going on was that Giáp (legendary North Vietnamese General VÃµ Nguyên Giáp) had launched his Easter offensive with 150,000 soldiers." He basically wanted to split the country in half.
"They shot down five C-130s in the next 30 days."
"I was reading a book later that said they killed more C-130 crew members than any other airplane – because there were more crew members on it (pilot, co-pilot, navigator and loadmaster) and there was no way to get out if you ever got hit."
It was one of those big tests in life.
"Again, I tell people I didn't choose it, I just have this faith belief that if you do the right thing, providence will prepare you for what you need."
One of six children, Pearce grew up in a family that struggled to make ends meet.
His dad, Melvin, was an oil field roustabout – the entry level guy who works in the gang doing labor. His mother, Jane, was "a strong woman who ran a tight ship."
"We went to church every time it opened up," he said.
The family bought a small farm about five miles from Hobbs that had water from the Ogallala aquifer and decent soil.
"We grew vegetables and took them down to the grocery store to sell them. Squash, onions, tomatoes … and we all had 4-H projects. We wouldn't have gone to college without them," Pearce said.
"Most of what we did was pigs, because calves were more expensive and we just didn't have the money. Sheep and pigs was all we could afford, and the six kids had three or four animals each."
He said his dad had talent but many fears, and change made him nervous.
It was his mom who pushed.
Pearce went to Hobbs High School, where he played baseball.
"I say that with a certain amount of shame – that you grow up in Hobbs and not be able to bounce a basketball," he said in reference to the Hobbs basketball teams that dominated the state under Coach Ralph Tasker.
"I played baseball and wanted to maybe play professionally but just didn't have the juice."
Pearce singles out Dennis Shaw, his high school baseball coach, as one of the key influences in his life.
"He was the one who pulled me along and got me out of my shell. So I always recognize the influence of teachers," he said.
"Teachers ask me what I want in an education system, and I say that I was backward, that I learned slow, that I was introverted and shy and everything that's hard for you as teachers to deal with.
"So what I'm looking for in an education system is for you to put people on a pathway where, 40 years later, they at least have the potential to go for Congress. The fact I was there was not a testament to me but to all the people who didn't give up on me."
While he grew up poor, working to buy his own clothes, Steve Pearce is now a wealthy man.
Federal disclosure forms give only asset ranges, which put Pearce at a minimum of $7.5 million and a possible maximum in excess of $30 million.
After mustering out of the Air Force in 1976, he flew a crop duster in Arkansas for a couple years – and was "about to starve to death."
"And I really missed New Mexico. Home is home, no matter where it is. I met my wife, Cynthia, within a year or so after moving back, and we got married in '81."
The Pearces have a daughter and two grandchildren.
Cynthia worked for Southern Union Gas in the financial field, and the two of them saw the opportunity to buy a company that "everybody in town had looked at and it was just dead on its feet."
"So we decided to take a shot, because we thought it had potential."
They bought Lea Fishing Tools, an oil field services company, and eventually built it to just under 50 employees and expanded to other oil- and gas-producing parts of the state.
They were doing well – "making more money than we could spend" – and had reinvested the profits for 14 years.
"It was a beautifully operating business with good margins, and we had built our team one person at a time."
Then one of those "no notice tests" hit when the bottom fell out of oil prices in the crash of 1999.
"Companies began to lay off 60 to 70 percent of their workforce and gave 30 percent pay cuts. But we elected to keep everybody on and paying them what they had been making because we had plucked them one at a time from other companies, and we just couldn't see them losing their houses."
"I told them that we're in this together, and we'll sacrifice the company if need be. And we were within 30 days of running out of cash and shutting down – paying maybe $50,000 a month for labor we didn't need."
In fact, he and Cynthia had sat down and "evaluated the potential of losing the company and losing everything we had because we had signed loan guarantees for everything."
Then oil bounced back, and the work started up immediately. Oil drilling operations that had simply shut down were desperate for the kind of services provided by Lea Fishing Tools – which they later sold.
"We made back in six months what we had paid out just holding the team together. Nobody else had crews, and we not only had ours in place, they had a good attitude, because nobody had lost a house or home.
"I tell people that you get 'no notice' exams in life, and you either measure up or you don't. And the quality of the rest of your life is going to be determined by those moments.
"Looking back, we say it was a pretty steep 'no notice test' and we came through OK. We withstood the pressure and didn't flinch in the face of it."
Working the fields
Pearce says he was one of the first Republicans to criticize the separation of children from parents at the border.
He has consistently opposed amnesty for people illegally in the U.S., but has long advocated a system that would allow many to work here and return home, freely crossing the border in both directions.
To understand his position, Pearce says you "have to go all the way back to childhood."
When he was 9 years old, he worked alongside braceros in the cotton fields.
"A local family would have braceros (Mexican guest workers) on their farm, so Mom would have all of us kids down there chopping cotton on a line. When fall came, we would pick the cotton. It was one of my first experiences with people who didn't speak English, but you could tell the kindness of the human heart, and they would help us poor struggling white kids.
"They were so good at picking cotton and chopping, and they would help us on our row when the pit boss wasn't watching. You really couldn't communicate, but they would give you the dipper of water, and you were all drinking out of the same dipper and the same barrel.
"And you begin to say, 'OK, these really are decent people.'
"So everything I say now is in that context. I am very sympathetic. I want them to follow the law, and I don't want amnesty, but most are trying to feed a family. I've always said we need a middle course that would let them come here and work and make it easy for them. Biometric stuff is easily available. I think most would come and work for six months and go home."
"Now, people come here to work, but it's hard to go back home and then re-enter the U.S. So they bring a family member and then another and then everybody's here. I don't care to put anybody in jail or fine them. Let's just give them some kind of status."
"The wall isn't the magic answer. … You're going to spend billions of dollars and find that it didn't really secure the border."
Pearce said Republicans "have been afraid to solve the immigration problem, and Democrats didn't want to solve it – even when they had 60 votes in the Senate."
Pearce says he has worked at relationships with Democrats on the issue, including firebrand Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois.
"We get along very well, and he said at one point, the leadership of both parties is the problem and that you and I could work this stuff out here on the back bench."
Pearce voted for both unsuccessful Republican immigration bills earlier this summer, including the one that offered amnesty (or a path to citizenship) for some DACA kids.
Pearce says he believes he has been in the middle on the issue and "I think the conversation will end up closer to where I am."
Crime and punishment
He's a staunch conservative, but Pearce breaks with orthodoxy in some areas.
When it comes to crime, he has talked to judges about programs in which first offenders could be put to work restoring forests in exchange for not going to jail and having a record.
"We need to rethink how we handle the first edges of crime so we can recapture and restore lives – catching more of these people before they get to be hardened criminals."
"People make dumb mistakes at 18 or 19 years old, and we put them in prison and they're never going to get out of the system. And 75 percent are going to come back here and in prison they learn how to be very good criminals."
He's working on a program to get people from the South Valley "who have been in prison and are on some kind of watch program" to take oil field jobs in southeastern New Mexico, where he says even entry level workers are making $50,000 a year plus.
"There's a jet flying into Hobbs every day from Houston with workers who are going to spend two weeks on the job, and then go home. Why can't those jobs go to New Mexicans?"
He talks about poverty and tells people that "no matter how wealthy we might be, if our neighbor is without hopes and dreams, it won't matter. So the idea is there are people out there who just need a little bit of encouragement. A little bit of belief. So I tell people quite frequently, you may have given up on yourself, and everybody else may have given up on you, but I haven't. I don't even know you, but I think there is something there, so pick it up and let's go."
"People, with encouragement, begin to do things."
Oil and gas
Pearce says the U.S. should promote all kinds of energy including renewables, but points out that recent discoveries say New Mexico is sitting on reserves that make Lea and Eddy counties "the new Saudi Arabia."
And reacting to those openly hostile to oil and gas, he says, "I generally start by saying I'll let them explain why teachers are going to get a 35 percent pay cut if we do away with it – because that's roughly the percentage of state revenue that comes from the industry.
"I also tell them, I'd be a lot more impressed if you were driving a solar or wind-powered car."
He served four years in the state Legislature where he had a reputation for his water expertise – after being taken under the wing of a couple of Democrats – Joe Stell and G.X. McSherry.
He believes the state needs to become the national – or even international – leader in water resources.
"New Mexico has a lot of water. We just don't have a lot of cheap water, and I believe that if we invest and find companies that will invest, we can do dramatic things. I'm in early discussions with companies that would refine water from the oil fields."
Pearce ran for the Legislature in 1996 because he was frustrated with the obstacles faced by business, but decided to run for Congress in 2001 "because we quickly realized the real fight was in Washington."
But fighting doesn't have to be nasty.
Pearce says he has worked to establish relationships with Democrats, including California Democrat Maxine Waters, one of the harshest critics of the Trump administration and most things Republican – even before calling recently for confrontation of Trump administration officials in public places.
"We would dust each other up pretty good on the Financial Services Committee, and one day I finally walked over and said, 'Maxine, this is pretty tough stuff … but this is not personal. …You and me, we're OK?'
"She loosened up, and we both began to make it a practice. I happened to be behind her on the escalator going to the floor on Inauguration Day and she said all sorts of crazy stuff about Trump and he probably said it back about her and she turned and said to me, 'It's not personal. It's you and me. We're OK?' And I said, 'We're OK.' "
On the subjects of partisan rancor and baseball, Pearce played in last month's congressional game – logging time in the outfield and getting a hit.
It was during that game that Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana took the field a year after being gravely wounded by a rifle-wielding, deranged Bernie Sanders supporter who attacked the GOP practice.
Two heroic Capitol Police officers, armed only with handguns, engaged the man, averting a bloodbath.
Scalise started last month's game at second base – still using a crutch – and as fate would have it, fielded a grounder hit to his weak side, falling down and making the play.
"Everybody, Democrats and Republicans, just went crazy. It was just one of the neat human stories," Pearce said, "uplifting to everybody no matter what party."
Addressing the angry rhetoric, Pearce said in a recent interview with Journal reporter Dan McKay that "It's time for us to take a look in the mirror and throttle down."
At the end of the day, Pearce credits his mother, Jane, for his success in life – and for the message he tries to impart to today's young people. It's a message he hopes will appeal to voters.
"Mom is the one who taught me tenacity" and to confront my fears, he said. "She kept kickstarting me, so that at age 13, I went into a bank and borrowed money for a pig project. I don't think Dad ever went into a bank."
"I go into the schools and tell them that you don't have to be pretty to succeed. Look at me.
"And you don't have to be in the top of your class. If it hadn't been for me, there wouldn't have been a top half of the class."
"I tell them that the only thing that's going to drive you to success is never giving up."