Rocket to the Moon

by Holly Wall


Jim Bridenstine leaned back in a swivel desk chair, a green flight jacket zipped over his dress shirt and tie, the wall behind him bearing the weight of military certificates, college diplomas, Navy memorabilia, and photos of military aircraft and commercial racing rockets.

Baby-faced and soft-voiced, he seemed wary of my questions, his eyes occasionally leaving my gaze to wander over my left shoulder, taking cues from the media-relations consultant sitting behind me. “So why are you running for office?” I asked him. The Tea Party-backed, first-time Republican Congressional candidate for Oklahoma’s 1st District leaned forward, sat up straight, and began talking about the national debt, the issue that inspired him to make a bid for government office: “We have a crisis—a national crisis,” he said.

“It was a manufactured crisis,” John Olson, Bridenstine’s opponent, had told me just a few hours before, blasting the debt-ceiling debacle that had transpired earlier in the year. “We can all acknowledge our debt is a problem,” Olson said, “but that fight—where there was no compromise whatsoever and no rational thinking about what the impact would be at the ground level—had two impacts: One was that our nation lost its credit rating, and more immediately for me, training across the entire Army reserve was cancelled. And that affected my unit; it affected thousands and thousands of troops across the nation.”

Olson is tall and thin, with a relaxed presence, genial attitude, and a sort of sheepish charm. Five hours before my interview in Bridenstine’s campaign headquarters, Olson and I met over coffee, bookending my day in two conversations with two freshman candidates who couldn’t have been more different—except for the dozen or so eerie similarities.

Bridenstine is 37; Olson is 35. Bridenstine is in the U.S. Navy reserve; Olson is in the U.S. Army reserve; both were formerly active duty. Olson, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota, joined the Army right out of high school for the free education; plus, he said, “I wanted to get away, to explore the world, see what’s outside of Minnesota.” He thought he’d serve four years and get out; he’s been a soldier for 15 years.

Bridenstine grew up in Arlington, Texas, the son of an elementary school teacher and an accountant, who joined the Boy Scouts and played piano and viola. He was a competitive swimmer at age 9. His family moved to Tulsa during his junior year of high school, and during his senior year he was captain of the Jenks High School swim team and Oklahoma Swimmer of the Year.

“I think I liked (swimming) because it was one of those sports where, at least when you start, it’s the person who works the hardest that becomes the fastest,” Bridenstine said. “And I knew if I worked harder than anyone else I would ultimately be successful at it.”

He earned a scholarship to Rice University in Houston, Texas, but a shoulder injury his sophomore year set him back and he ended up attending five years instead of four, which gave him time to study in three majors: economics, business, and psychology.

Following graduation, Bridenstine interviewed with a number of investment banking and consulting firms but wasn’t inspired. “I just called my dad one day and let him know I’m not interested in any of these positions,” he said. “They don’t fit my personality; I’m not excited about any of them.”

When his father asked him what he was excited about, he said: “I want to fly military airplanes.” After visiting with a few recruiters, he enlisted in the Navy.

Photo by Brandon Scott

* * *

Bridenstine’s first mission was in 2002, flying E-2C Hawkeyes off the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in the North Arabian Sea. He flew combat missions in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom that same year, and later he flew operations in Iraq, before and during the war.

In 2004, Bridenstine transitioned to the F-18 Hornet and flew with the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, the parent command to TOPGUN—the Navy’s fighter pilot training program made famous by a 1986 Tom Cruise flick—where he flew enemy profiles for American pilots going through strike training.

“I was a target,” he said. “I would fly the way the enemies of the U.S. would fly as a target. And ultimately my job was to get shot down, which I did frequently.

“If I get shot down, then we’re doing things right.”

Bridenstine and his family—he and his wife Michelle have three young children—moved to Tulsa in 2008 to be closer to family. He began looking for jobs in the aerospace industry and heard about one through the Chamber of Commerce that he thought might be useful in developing another interest he had—private space flight through the Rocket Racing League.

The Rocket Racing League is a start-up endeavor that aims to raise money for private space flight through a NASCAR-like revenue model. “You raise money by racing them, so your revenue streams are ticket sales, merchandising, television rights, corporate sponsorships, and video gaming and even popular video games sites as “Bridenstine explained. “And from those revenue streams you can advance rocket science and space technology and you can do it in a race environment.”

He has financial stake in the league, in the form of what he calls a “small payment to reserve a position to be able to buy a team in the future.” He also owns shares of the league as an investor. “My investment is not that big,” he emphasized, without elaborating.

His required financial disclosure from the U.S House of Representatives puts his investment somewhere between $50,001 and $100,000, but he told the Tulsa World in 2010 he sold four houses in California and a five-acre ranchette in Nevada—where he kept 10 or so alpacas, bought because of a 2003 tax cut for livestock breeders; he boards them in Texas now—to fund that small investment.

“It costs several hundred thousand dollars to put a down payment [on] a team in an as-yet unproven league,” the World reported. “Still, Bridenstine wasn’t afraid of the risk.”

He had told his interviewer, reminiscing to 2002 when he was investing in real estate with interest-only adjustable-rate loans, earning $50,000 a year and sinking $1.5 million into debt, “I didn’t have a fear of failure. I didn’t have a fear of risk.”

Bridenstine was pitching his idea for a Rocket Racing League air show in Tulsa when he heard about the Tulsa Air and Space Museum’s need for an executive director. He’d never run a museum before, but he decided to take another risk.

“Someone at the Chamber of Commerce that I talked to called me not long after I left and said, ‘Hey’—I can’t remember how she framed it—but she said, ‘It might be a good thing to apply for the job at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. They have an opening, and that would get you in Tulsa, and we could look at doing a rocket race sometime in the future.’ So I did. I sent my resume in, came here a couple of times for interviews, and they hired me.”

* * *

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum occupies about 19,000 square feet on land tucked into the northern corner of Tulsa International Airport property. Adjacent to it is the James E. Bertelsmeyer Planetarium. The two-level museum is filled with antique aircraft, interactive space displays, archival photographs, and learning exhibits for kids. Planes and helicopters hang from the ceiling, and stairs lead to the cockpits of the two on the ground, allowing children to climb in and take the control stick. An American Airlines exhibit shows off airline attire of yore, and the Space Maneuvering Unit recreates a feeling of weightlessness.

Bridenstine’s mission was to put the little museum on the map.

“The people who started the Air and Space Museum built what I thought was a tremendous institution for our city,” he said. “And it was my opinion that it needed a very, very robust marketing plan.”

Bridenstine decided the best way to market the museum would be to put it in the running to receive one of NASA’s four retiring space shuttles. All that was required was a 10,000-foot runway, an institution dedicated to aerospace education, and a city capable of preserving the shuttle.

“I said, ‘This is not only a great opportunity for us to get a space shuttle, but also to get people enthusiastic in Tulsa about the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.’ So we launched a campaign to get a space shuttle in Tulsa.”

Part of that campaign included an air show by the Rocket Racing League at Mohawk Park, across the street from the museum’s campus. About 40,000 people attended—four times what Bridenstine expected or planned for—and traffic was backed up for hours. Still, the event proved to Bridenstine the community’s “enthusiasm for what we were doing.” And though efforts to land the shuttle in Tulsa ultimately failed, Bridenstine said he reached his goal.

“It raised our level of awareness within the air and space museum community signi cantly. So for the effort we put in, we got a tremendous return in terms of visibility.”

But the museum’s 2010 tax return indicates that the effort, for all it gained in terms of visibility, lost financially. The QuikTrip Air and Rocket Racing Show lost $330,000, and overall fundraising events that year lost $400,000.

Bridenstine left his executive director post after 21 months to join the Navy reserve. Because training and missions would require four-to-six-month-long absences, he thought resigning from the museum was the “best thing to do.” When Bridenstine resigned, Tulsa Air and Space Museum founding chairman Lee Raney told the Tulsa World: “I don’t think there’s anybody left in Tulsa who doesn’t know where the Air and Space Museum is. I couldn’t have said that two years ago.”

The paper reported: “As far as the museum’s financial state, Raney said, ‘We have had pretty good traffic this year. We’re working hard at keeping it a viable and wonderful place.’ “

* * *

During Bridenstine’s primary campaign against five-term Republican incumbent John Sullivan, Sullivan used his opponent’s performance at the museum against him, suggesting he left the museum on bad terms, accusations Bridenstine in turn called “desperate attacks.”

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum board of directors issued a formal statement on the matter, saying, “The Tulsa Air and Space Museum is neither for nor against any candidate in any election.” [1]

At least one board member has strayed from this collective opinion: Jim Bertelsmeyer, planetarium namesake, told the Sullivan campaign: “The best day for the museum was the day that Jim Bridenstine left. While I respect Jim’s service to our country as an aviator, I can’t imagine how he is qualified to run a congressional district if, in my judgment, he can’t effectively manage our air and space museum.”

Bridenstine announced his candidacy in September 2011, citing the aforementioned national debt as a top issue, saying the weak U.S. dollar, caused by the Federal Reserve’s unrestrained printing of money, has made the country “an unattractive place to invest money, start a business or grow a corporation,” resulting in joblessness. Bridenstine advocates low taxes, fiscal constraint, low regulation, and fair trade. He supports eliminating the capital gains tax and adopting a fair tax, which his Democratic opponent says is an obvious example of “robbing from the poor to feed the rich.”

Bridenstine also supports congressional term limits, reduced salaries and less time in session; a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority to raise taxes; and a line-item veto for the president “to reduce earmarks and control spending.”

The rest of his platform reads like a Republican greatest hits: He opposes abortion and stem-cell research and supports a “human life amendment” to the constitution; he opposes gay marriage and supports “a constitutional
amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman”; he supports the full repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and would replace it with “a more competitive and cost-reducing system”; he
opposes Cap and Trade legislation and says “global warming should not drive national energy policy without clearer evidence”; and he supports lax gun control, tighter border control, and “local control of the educational process.”

He quickly earned the support of the Tea Party—a distinction he told Urban Tulsa Weekly he likes just fine: “I have no problem being called the Tea Party-endorsed candidate at all. They’re looking for constitutional conservatism, they’re looking for limited government, they’re looking for lower taxes, less regulation. And those are all ideals I adhere to.”

But John Olson thinks Democrats can beat the Tea Party in Oklahoma—even if it is the “reddest of the red states.”

“People realize it’s not just about you and your party; it’s about what’s best for this country,” he said. “And because of that, I’ve been able to get a lot of support, not just from Democrats and Independents, but also from Republicans as well. And I think that when you look at the way this election is going, a Democrat in this state can beat the Tea Party. Because that’s who I’m running against. And the Tea Party does not represent what the Republican party stands for.”

Still, Olson admitted Bridenstine’s defeat of Sullivan—an upset that shocked voters and the media in Oklahoma, and made headlines across the country—threw his campaign for a loop. “We kind of had a plan to impeach John Sullivan on his performance, and the primary results came in, and we had to rewrite our playbook,” he said.

Both Olson and Bridenstine agreed that Sullivan failed to take his primary opponent seriously, and that was part of what cost him the election. In addition to the Tea Party’s support, Bridenstine had the support of optometrists and chiropractors angry over legislation he introduced, the Healthcare Truth and Transparency Act of 2011, that they said governed what they could and couldn’t do in Oklahoma.

Perhaps his biggest support in the eye care arena is Dr. Robert Zoellner, who donated $5,000 to his campaign and also employed the candidate—though Bridenstine wouldn’t say what kind of work he did or for how long—paying him $9,441 between January 1, 2011, and February 28, 2012. Several other Zoellners are listed by the Federal Election Commission as Bridenstine donors: Carrie Zoellner, a homemaker, donated $5,000; Charles Zoellner, a chiropractor, donated $250; Erik Zoellner, Robert and Charles’ brother and Bridenstine’s former campaign manager, donated various amounts totaling to $2,470, all of it in-kind; and Shamron Lynn Zoellner, a homemaker, donated $2,500.

Other issues raised in the Bridenstine campaign concern the use of his military rank and title. His website and campaign materials almost always address him as “Lieutenant Commander Jim Bridenstine” and often prominently feature photos of him in uniform. The Department of Defense prohibits the politicization of the military, and doing so is a violation of the separation of powers; although, the line between what is acceptable and what is considered a violation is a little blurry. At least one person thought Bridenstine broke the law enough to submit an anonymous complaint to the Naval Inspector General. [2]

Bridenstine didn’t respond to questions about those accusations.

Olson says he’s committed to holding Bridenstine accountable to his policy positions and forcing him to campaign for the seat he’s seeking—and not against President Obama, which is whom Olson says Bridenstine has been focused on.

“All politics is local, and so his plan right now is to run against the president, and that’s fine and dandy, but he’s not running for president; he’s running to represent this district,” Olson said. “And he needs to run against me, and he needs to say what his ideas are that are going to impact the people here in this district.”

But Bridenstine told Olson and constituents at a recent debate that he is running against Obama. “Let me make this clear. I am running against the president, because we don’t need a Congress that will let him keep doing what he’s doing, which is trampling on our freedoms.”


1. The statement goes on, in the redundant, covering-our-bases language indicative of political season: “Certain statements have been made by others outside of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and the Tulsa Air and Space Museum wishes to clarify certain facts: Jim Bridenstine was employed at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum as its Executive Director from
December 2008 through August 20, 2010. While at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, Jim Bridenstine developed the QuikTrip Air and Rocket Racing Show and the Land the Shuttle Campaign, both of which garnered tremendous visibility for the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. While Mr. Bridenstine was executive director attendance increased at the museum. In August 2010 Mr. Bridenstine voluntarily
resigned from his position as Executive Director at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum in order to follow his orders in the Navy Reserves. Mr. Bridenstine was not terminated from the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.”

2. The complaint reads as follows: “Jim Bridenstine identifies himself by military rank on most of his campaign literature and videos, often while wearing his uniform. He has worn his uniform to speak publicly at events to which he was invited as a candidate for Congress. In my view, he purposefully overuses his military rank to such a degree that it implies an endorsement by the U.S. Navy, seriously calling into question the U.S. Navy’s ability to serve our elected leaders apolitically and without deference to one party over another. Additionally, Bridenstine has engaged in political fundraising activities (calling potential donors) while on missions.”

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 20. Oct. 15, 2012.