Campaign News
May 21, 2011

Freshman Democrats in the House Bond Over Policy and Egg Rolls

Jennifer Steinhauer   ·  The New York Times   ·  Link to Article

WASHINGTON — When you are a freshman Democrat in the House surrounded by scores of people whose views are antithetical to yours and who regularly pass laws you hate, you need coping strategies.

You dive deeply into policy, plowing through a 300-page briefing book on the Department of Homeland Security on a Friday night. You find an issue you can work on with a member from the other side of the aisle and dig in. You eat a lot of Chinese food.

In the sprawling class of 96 House freshmen, just nine are Democrats, dubbing themselves “the noble nine.” Their marginalization — in a chamber obsessed with party control and seniority — is all the more acute vis-à-vis the 87 Republican freshmen, whose sheer numbers and ideological intensity make them the most visible novices in over a decade.

But the Democrats, a cheerful coterie, have learned to embrace small victories, work hard and keep their eyes fixed firmly on their districts, from Southern California to Delaware, where they maintain a powerful role.

They all remain keenly aware that a wave election, like the midterms last November, can sweep a relatively new member into power, a la Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, a Republican first elected in 2006 and now No. 3 in his party’s leadership.

The Democrats also view themselves as a much-needed countervailing voice against the majority in the huge policy disputes that have engulfed the Capitol this year (even if this can often feel like using a garden hose on a wildfire).

“Our role is to fight for what we think is the right agenda,” said Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island, “and hopefully in some way influence the agenda. We are not just here as observers.”

At the end of the day, each of the nine Democrats said in interviews last week, their role in their own districts is not terribly diminished by their relative invisibility here. “It just doesn’t change the focus of what the folks in Alabama sent me here to do,” said Representative Terri A. Sewell, whose district covers parts of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.

While the Republican freshman class is notable for the large number of members without any prior political experience, the freshman Democrats are an experienced group, including Representative Karen Bass, a former speaker of the California Assembly; Mr. Cicilline, who was the mayor of Providence; and Representative Frederica S. Wilson, who spent over a decade in the Florida Legislature. Only Ms. Sewell had never been elected to public office.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” said Ms. Wilson, who is best known for her large cowboy hats that tend to match her outfit (well hello, lemon yellow!), which to her great disappointment were banned from the House floor in the session’s first week.

“I walked in the first time to a Foreign Affairs Committee meeting and I was told I had walked through the Republican door,” she said. “I thought, ‘Ohhhhh, I didn’t know there was a door for each party.’ Being in the minority is intrinsic here.”

Some, like Representative William Keating of Massachusetts, never labored in the minority in their previous state legislative careers, and then there is Ms. Sewell, who is the only Democrat in the seven-member Alabama House delegation.

These freshmen Democrats are a diverse bunch, racially and geographically, though politically they are largely liberal. One exception is Representative John Carney, the lone representative from Delaware, where Democrats have a smaller majority than most other districts represented by Democratic freshmen. Mr. Carney won the seat that had been held by a Republican, Mike Castle, for nearly three decades.

“These nine men and women represent the best of public service,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader, “each bringing their own unique background and experience to the halls of Congress.”

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