They file into the auditorium in twos and threes, talking in hushed voices, settling into the plush navy seats that face the stage. Outside, in the marble hall, staff redirect anyone who wanders into the wrong door or hallway – and plenty of them do.
A sign on an easel declares, “New Member Orientation.”
It could be the first day on any college campus across the United States. Except this happens to be Capitol Hill, and these freshmen are the newly-elected members of the 116th Congress.
As the dust settles from this year’s tumultuous midterm election, this class of lawmakers – heralded as the most diverse in US history – are now stepping up to their next challenge: setting up shop. The task includes everything from hiring staff to securing offices to figuring out where the bathrooms are across the 540 rooms that populate the Capitol building.
It’s a blunt reminder that serving in Congress, for all its heady glory, is also a real job. Picture a small business owner wrestling with all the usual details of starting a company – but with the rules, regulations, and limitations that apply to a member of the House of Representatives (or the Senate). Member-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) of New York captured the feeling in an instantly viral video, posted the day before orientation was set to start, that shows her sliding quarters into a washing machine.
“The thing that most people don’t tell you about running for Congress is that your clothes are stinky all the time, because you never have time to do laundry. So this is what I’m up to this morning,” the youngest woman to ever win a seat in Congress tells her 700,000 Instagram followers. “Congressional life getting off to a glamorous start.”
Locking down logistics in the first few weeks – signing up for health care, setting up official websites and email addresses, and attending workplace training sessions – assures a better chance of a smooth transition after the swearing-in on Jan. 3, and could mean the difference between an effective first term in office and a fruitless one. That means, above all, putting together a strong staff early on, with a good mix of experienced Washington hands and people from the district.
“I always tell new members, ‘This group has more influence in your success than any other group of Americans,’ ” says Brad Fitch, president and chief executive of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Congressional Management Fund, which has been training new members and staff since 1977. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Still, there is also a kind of magic to the office. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who will be one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, says she was taken aback when she saw civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia at one of the many dinners hosted for the members-elect.
“I was almost in tears,” Congresswoman-elect Omar (D) says. She doubts the sense of wonder will fade anytime soon. “I’m constantly walking around recognizing how beautiful it is for us to be here with so many historical firsts, and to serve with a lot of historical firsts as well.”
Week two of orientation begins the Tuesday after the Thanksgiving holiday. Members-elect will once more check into the Courtyard Marriott-Navy Yard here in Washington, where they stayed during the first week. On the Hill, they’ll break into smaller groups for briefings, show up for photo ops, and on Nov. 30, join in the lottery for their assigned office spaces.
In the meantime, meet some of the new House members of the 116th Congress:
LUCY MCBATH (D), GEORGIA’S SIXTH DISTRICT
In 2012, Lucy McBath’s teenage son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in an SUV parked at a Florida gas station – the result of an argument with a white man over the volume of music playing out of Mr. Davis’s car. His death led Ms. McBath to become a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, to testify in a Senate hearing against Stand Your Ground laws, and to take part in an HBO documentary about Davis’s murder.
But her bid for Congress was about more than just gun control.
Running on a broad platform that included addressing climate change, expanding Medicaid, and funding public education, McBath defeated GOP Rep. Karen Handel in one of the most closely watched races of the season. In doing so, she flipped a longtime Republican seat – the same one former Speaker Newt Gingrich held for 20 years – and helped strengthen Democrats’ incursion into GOP-held suburbs. She is also the first African-American to represent the district.
SHARICE DAVIDS (D), KANSAS’S THIRD DISTRICT
On the surface, Sharice Davids seems like a Democratic avatar for the 2018 campaign season. A former mixed martial arts fighter, she’s the first openly gay representative to serve from Kansas, and one of the two first Native American women elected to Congress. And there’s no doubt she rode a wave of anti-Trump sentiment that helped Democrats regain the majority in the House.
Yet Ms. Davids, who defeated GOP incumbent Kevin Yoder by nearly 10 points, is also among a number of Democrats who ran on a promise of pragmatism and bipartisanship to win in a swing district. Instead of focusing on potential investigations into President Trump’s administration, she highlighted her commitment to protecting health care, her mother’s Army service, and her ability to both fight for progress and build consensus.
“I … think it’s kind of irresponsible to say, before I even get through orientation, to say yes or no on any piece of legislation that might come up,” Davids told McClatchy DC after the election. “I feel like I’d really have to see what is on the table.”
GIL CISNEROS (D), CALIFORNIA’S 39TH DISTRICT
Another group to have made strides this cycle: Latinos. From Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Antonio Delgado in New York to Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia in Texas, Latino candidates have broken new ground, mostly as Democrats.
Gil Cisneros stands out as having run – and won – in one of the nation’s closest races and against another potential history-maker in Republican Young Kim, who would have been the first Korean American woman to serve in Congress. A former naval supply officer, Mr. Cisneros rose to prominence after winning the California state lottery in 2010. He and his wife used funds from the jackpot to develop higher-education opportunities for Latino students and families.
On Saturday, the Associated Press declared Cisneros, a first-time candidate, the winner against Ms. Kim, who lost her early lead as the votes trickled in. The victory completed what became a Republican drubbing in California, where Democrats took six of the seven GOP-held districts that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the end Cisneros won by less than 3,500 votes.
DAN CRENSHAW (R), TEXAS’S 2ND DISTRICT
The last thing Dan Crenshaw expected was to become a viral sensation. The Republican candidate was running against Democrat Todd Litton in a district that went to Mr. Trump by nine points in 2016. Pollsters had Mr. Crenshaw comfortably ahead.
Then, the weekend before the election, “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson mocked Crenshaw’s eye patch in a widely panned segment. Crenshaw wears the patch to cover his right eye, which was blinded in an IED explosion while he was serving in Afghanistan. The episode fanned outrage over the state of the nation’s political discourse and raised familiar questions about the line between comedy and incivility.
But it was Crenshaw’s response that won him public approval. Not only did he appear in a follow-up segment on “SNL,” which reached out with an apology and an invitation to reconcile on-air. He also wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that called on Americans to agree on basic rules for civil discourse – like focusing political attacks on ideas instead of on people.
“When all else fails, try asking for forgiveness, or granting it,” he wrote.
PETE STAUBER (R), MINNESOTA’S EIGHTH DISTRICT
In a cycle dominated by Democrats flipping Republican seats, Pete Stauber stands apart for having done the opposite: turning a blue district red. (Only two others – Jim Hagedorn in Minnesota’s First District and Guy Reschenthauler in Pennsylvania’s 14th – managed to do the same.)
Mr. Stauber, a St. Louis County commissioner and retired police officer, defeated Democrat and former state legislator Joe Radinovich in a campaign that featured a lawsuit that forced St. Louis County to release emails from Stauber’s government account, and ads that criticized Mr. Radinovich’s past parking and traffic violations and teenage marijuana use.
Political analysts say it was Trump’s economic policies, and his support, that ultimately clinched the race for Stauber. Where manufacturers and farmers in other parts of the country have responded to the president’s trade policies with mixed feelings, the iron mining industry of northeastern Minnesota has embraced the tariffs as a sign that Trump is keeping his promises.
Stauber is the second Republican to win the district in 71 years.
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