WASHINGTON — In 1992, Rep. Jerry Lewis, in perhaps the lowest point of his political career, lost a House leadership post, a defeat made all the more bitter after some of his California colleagues abandoned him to support a Texas congressman.
On Wednesday, the Republican from Redlands achieved a comeback, winning the coveted chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee -- "the highlight of my career," he said.
Now the silver-haired, 70-year-old onetime insurance executive can hope he will no longer be confused with the comedian of the same name.
Lewis was a different man Wednesday than in 1992, when he was deposed from the party's No. 3 leadership post by conservative Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, who would go on to become majority leader. While shattered by the loss, Lewis never gave up on his ambition to climb the congressional leadership ladder.
During his 26 years on Capitol Hill, he built up his resume. He became head of the California GOP delegation. He became a "cardinal," as the chairmen of Appropriations subcommittees are known -- serving most recently as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, managing the biggest spending bill in the overall budget.
Perhaps most important, he became a leader in raising campaign funds to build the House GOP majority -- work that is credited with helping him leapfrog over a more senior colleague to win the Appropriations gavel. In the 2003-04 election cycle, Lewis' campaign committee donated more than $600,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance issues.
And this time Lewis secured the support of every one of his California Republican colleagues when he sought the committee chairmanship.
Born Oct. 21, 1934, in Seattle, Lewis served for three years on the San Bernardino school board and 10 years in the state Assembly before winning election to Congress in 1978.
In an arena where members of opposite parties are often at each other's throats, he is well-liked by colleagues from both sides of the aisle. Democrats joined Republicans in praising his appointment.
Mark Shepherd, chairman of the Democratic Party in San Bernardino County, said that although Lewis was a conservative Republican, he was willing to listen to differing views.
Lewis invited members of Partners for Global Change, a group that promotes international cooperation to avoid wars and conflicts, to discuss the war in Iraq last year, Shepherd recalled. The meeting did not change his views on the war, but Shepherd was impressed that the congressman met with the group at all.
"The fact that he does give audience and serious consideration to other views on some issues makes him different from some more strident members of his party," Shepherd said.
In his campaign for the Appropriations job, he showed his party's most conservative members a poster drawn by his brother, Ray, for his first campaign for Congress in 1978. It shows a bloated Uncle Sam with the caption "Uncle Needs a Diet," and was intended, he said, to portray his commitment to bring fiscal discipline to the budget process.
But the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste complained Wednesday that Lewis had used his position as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense to steer "pork" to his district.
Lewis has made no secret that he has used his position to obtain funds for his district and state, evidenced by such projects as the Lewis Center for Educational Research in Apple Valley, the Jerry Lewis Swim Center in San Bernardino and the Jerry Lewis Community Center in Highland.
But he noted Wednesday that after he became chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on veterans affairs and housing in 1995, he ordered a top-to-bottom review of the spending plan for that fiscal year, and recommended $10 billion in cuts.
And he said that since becoming chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, he had worked to eliminate "billions of dollars from poorly performing programs, which has helped pay for the vitally needed transformation and modernization of our military."
Among his targets was the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, which he attempted to scale back as soon as he became head of the defense subcommittee, saying it symbolized Cold War-era thinking.
Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, called Lewis well-suited for his new job. "He is smart, fair-minded, politically savvy, and has a deal-brokering knack for finding compromise positions where many others might fail," he said.
Lewis, a graduate of UCLA, often brings his dog, Bruin, to his Capitol Hill office. A former lifeguard, he saved former House Speaker Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, from drowning off the coast of Hawaii in the late 1980s. Lewis still swims at least 100 laps at least three times a week in the pool in the House gym. His family includes his wife, Arlene; four children from his first marriage; and three children from hers.
Charlene Stover, a retired teacher from Hemet and secretary for the Republican Party of Riverside County, said she had known Lewis for nearly 30 years, dating back to his service as an assemblyman for the San Jacinto area. She said Lewis had always treated her and other constituents politely and honestly.
"So many politicians are always flowery around voters," she said. "But Jerry is real. Jerry is just Jerry."
Simon reported from Washington and Martin from Riverside.