Learning to listen to clients and gain their trust helped freshman Sen John Ensign (R-NV) build his veterinary practice in Las Vegas, and it has served him well on the campaign trail and in the halls of Congress as well.
Senator John Ensign
"In veterinary school, professors always emphasized one-on-one training that taught us how to deal with people," Ensign said. "Learning to really listen to what people care about helps a lot in Congress and on the campaign trail."
Using skills he cultivated in his veterinary career, Ensign first served in the US House of Representatives from 1995–1999. He ran for the Senate in 1998 but lost to incumbent Sen Harry Reid by only 428 votes. In the 2000 election to replace retiring Sen Richard Bryan, Ensign defeated lawyer Ed Bernstein.
Ensign opened the first 24-hour companion animal hospital in Las Vegas and still maintains ownership of the Desert Shores Animal Hospital in Las Vegas. After his 1998 loss to Bryan, he returned to veterinary medicine before deciding to run for the Senate again in 2000.
Ensign won't be the only veterinarian serving in the Senate this session. He joins Sen Wayne Allard (R-CO), who was elected in 1996. Both veterinarians graduated from Colorado State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Ensign in 1985 and Allard in 1968. The two men also served together in the House of Representatives between 1995 and 1997 and look forward to working together again in the Senate.
"I have the greatest respect for Senator Ensign both as a colleague in the field of veterinary medicine and as a colleague in the US Senate," Allard said. "I look forward to working with him on a variety of issues, including those of importance to veterinary medicine."
Ensign will join Allard on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and will also serve on the Small Business Committee and the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee as well as the Special Committee on Aging.
During his first term in the Senate, Ensign plans to work on issues he emphasized during his campaign, including education, which he sees as an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.
"Education is going to be a big issue this year. We have to remember that if we want a top economy in this country, we must educate our citizens," Ensign said.
"We have to do everything we can to reach across the aisle on this issue to be sure that we are making education a top priority."
As the costs of education continue to rise more quickly than the supply of student loans and financial aid can accommodate, veterinary students are graduating with increasingly large amounts of debt.
"When I graduated from veterinary school, I had around $20,000 in debt, but some of the young graduates I have worked with—some have more than $100,000 in debt, and that's a big problem," Ensign said.
Another issue Ensign highlighted in his campaign and plans to pursue in the Senate is the expanding elderly population.
"Senior citizens are an increasingly important and growing segment of American society, and there are many quality-of-life issues that we need to look at for seniors," he said.
Ensign cited the National Senior Citizens Pet Ownership Protection Act (HR 1619, 105th Congress), a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in 1996, as an example of legislation that could improve the quality of life for senior citizens. Its provisions allowed senior citizens in federally assisted rental properties to keep their pets, even if the property had rules against pet ownership. The language from that bill was added to the 1998 Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill, which was enacted into law.
"As a veterinarian, you see in hospitals, in jails, in nursing homes, and in public housing how pets improve people's lives," Ensign said.
According to the Nevada senator, the unique perspective of veterinarians and the respect that people generally have for the profession lend well to political involvement.
"The fact is that people trust veterinarians, and [my campaign] pushed that credibility on the campaign trail," Ensign said. "People view veterinarians as caring people, because if you care for their pets, you must also care about the people. That's a strong message."
He encouraged other veterinarians to educate themselves about the ways that government affects their practices and to get involved with politics at all levels.
"Veterinarians should know that they come from a great profession that is well respected," Ensign said. "You don't have to hold elected office to be politically active, but right now there are too many lawyers in public office and not enough veterinarians."
When Congress is in session, Ensign works in Washington, DC, during the week and travels home on the weekends to spend time with his wife, Darlene, and children Trevor, Siena, and Michael. He said that the separation from his family is the hardest part of his job as a senator.
Ensign said he appreciates the support of the AVMA Political Action Committee in both his campaigns for the Senate as well as his terms in the House of Representatives. AVMAPAC supported Ensign's Senate campaign during the 1999–2000 cycle with the maximal dollar amounts allowed by the Federal Election Commission for his primary and the general election.
"I am appreciative of the AVMA's support for my campaign and want to thank all the veterinarians who supported me through their donations to AVMAPAC," Ensign said.
"I hope that those veterinarians feel pride for the role they have played in electing two veterinarians to Congress."