Former Rep. Ralph Hall was the oldest member to ever serve in the U.S. House at 91, and the longest-serving representative from Texas. At 95, he died at his home in Rockwall, Texas, just 20 miles east of Dallas, on Thursday.
Hall was a Republican when he left office after losing a primary challenge in 2014, but had served 12 terms in Congress as a Democrat before switching parties in 2004. He was considered one of the leftover Dixiecrats in the Democrat Party, right of the Blue Dogs, and voted against his party for decades.
Hall flew Hellcat fighters during World War II, and was one of the last of the last two WWII veterans in the House and Senate when he left office. Even in his old age, he drove himself to campaign events, and exercised daily, running from his home on Capitol Hill to RFK Stadium and back.
“I’m just an old guy — lived pretty clean,” Hall said when he broke the record for oldest member. “I have no ailments. I don’t hurt anywhere.”
He represented the 4th District of Texas for 17 years and was known for his commitment to his constituents. Former Rep. Joe Barton remembered him as “the epitome of the people’s congressman.” But 17 years in Washington D.C. inevitably dubs one a swamp creature, and he was hit on that by challengers from the right. In the midst of his last election, his opponent John Ratcliffe targeted Hall as being “part of the GOP leadership that has contributed to five straight years of losing on the issues that Americans really care about.”
Hall’s name was never on a significant piece of legislation, but he worked on issues important to Texans. He championed the space program as chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, and focused on gas and oil as a long-time member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
He cared deeply about his mostly rural district, often securing projects and funding, and ensuring they shared in the prosperity from Texas’ rapidly growing cities. “Just being 90 shouldn’t be the reason they don’t vote for me if I deliver for them,” he told McClatchy during his last campaign. “And I do deliver for them.”
His constituents’ loyalty is evidenced, not just by their decades of votes, but in the roads, airport, and even high school football tournament named after him. In 2015, a life-size statue honoring Hall was erected in the Rockwall County Courthouse, where Hall held his first public office as county judge.
Hall’s switch to the GOP marked the end of an era in politics. Many assumed he would make the move with others after Republicans took control of the House in 1995, but he resisted, saying he wanted to keep Democrats’ conservative wing alive. He told The Associated Press he’s always said that if being a Democrat hurt his district, he would switch or resign. Texas became more red, and Hall learned GOP leaders had recently refused to place money for his district in a spending bill. “The only reason I was given was I was a Democrat,” he said.
At the time he switched, Rep. Tom Delay, another Republican from Texas, said Democrats are “reaping what they’ve sown.”
“Their leaders have lined up behind Howard Dean’s brand of angry, intolerant politics. They’ve made their message clear: ‘moderates need not apply’ and that’s a sad trend for a once-great party,” DeLay said.
Clearly, the trend continued. Switching parties in today’s partisan Congress, where few moderates exist, seems inconceivable. But in 2004, with one of the most conservative voting records in the House, and his endorsement of Bush in 2000, Hall’s move was unsurprising to Texans.
One person who wasn’t happy with his decision was his wife, Mary Ellen. “She’d rather I quit than switch parties,” Hall told CNN. It didn’t help that she found out he made the decision when watching the news. He joked about eating his meals out and sleeping by himself for six weeks after that.
Hall’s passing is not just a loss of a great public servant, but a reminder of Congress’s loss of veterans, moderates, and district-focused members. Hall is survived by his three children. His wife died in 2008 at age 83.