The first meeting of the 113th Congress was full of pomp and ceremony. Fourteen California freshmen gathered their friends and families and raised their right hands to become the newest members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Their biggest challenge at the moment is staffing their offices.
Six-year-old Madeline Valadao witnessed history on the House floor as the new Congress began its work. "The worst part was having to stand up," she says, "and the good part was when my dad got sworn in."
Her dad is freshman Congressman David Valadao, a Republican from the Central Valley. Valadao landed a prized spot on the House Appropriations Committee. He brought what he calls his “team members” from the two years he served in the California legislature. He’s also hired “two or three” D.C. locals. "As long as they’re open minded and willing to work, and willing to think for themselves," he says, "that’s what I need on my team. I don’t need any ‘yes’ people around me."
Newly-elected Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz has made a few Republican friends during orientation in D.C., but he won't name them because cross-party fraternization is frowned upon.
This week, California’s 14 freshman members of Congress are back in Washington for a second week of orientation. But much of the training is segregated, with Democrats on one side of Capitol Hill and Republicans on another.
During morning sessions, the newbies all learn about setting up a website, how to send constituent mail, how to staff an office. But from lunchtime until late into the evening, Democrats and Republicans are separated.
Republican Congressman Doug LaMalfa of Redding says, during afternoons with his GOP colleagues, he's witnessed the "hot debate" about conference rules and amendments. "They didn’t take very long to get the verbosity up here," he observed.
Even the meals are segregated. Speaker John Boehner’s fancy dinner for newcomers in Statuary Hall was GOP only; Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held her own party for Democratic freshmen.
It’s freshman orientation time, Capitol Hill style. Newly-elected members of Congress spent last week in Washington, where there was a lot to learn and not much time to learn it.
It was a busy week for the new House members from California.
Republican Doug LaMalfa from Redding said going to the House floor was "pretty cool." Ventura Democrat Julia Brownley said there were a lot of meetings in a lot of different locations, which resulted in sore feet, "But it's all been great and very exciting."
L.A. Democrat Tony Cardenas said they received ethics training early in the week, but he had more questions after the session than he did before he walked in the door.
Mark Takano, a Democrat from Riverside, had his priorities in order: he found out where he could get his dry cleaning done in the Longworth House Office Building for about a fourth of the price they charge at the hotel where the newbies were put up.
David Valadao, a Republican representing Hanford in the Central Valley, said the hardest part has been remembering names and faces. He noted when he was a lawmaker in Sacramento, it was easier: just 80 members. And as the minority party, his Republican caucus "just had 27 at the time."
California is sending a bumper crop of 14 freshmen to Capitol Hill. They were feted at a dinner in the grand Statuary Hall of the Capitol by Speaker John Boehner, had their I.D. pictures taken, and staked out their preference for committees.
Cardenas wants Energy and Commerce, since he's an engineer. Takano, a teacher, is leaning toward Education and the Workforce. LaMalfa pointed out that he's a farmer in his "real life," so the Agriculture Committee would be "a natural." But LaMalfa said he already knows this much: "Freshmen don't walk in here and start dictating where they go."
Nevertheless, Democrats Alan Lowenthal from Long Beach and Jared Huffman from Humboldt are both requesting Transportation and Infrastructure. Their party is the minority in the House, which means fewer seats on plum committees like those they're seeking.
But Cardenas isn’t discouraged: "The way it works around here, they say if you don’t get what you ask for, and they give you a different committee, apparently you still get to reserve a right to be on it when a slot opens up in the future."
Brownley also wants one of those rare Transportation seats. She spent an afternoon making her case to the top Democrat on that committee, Nick Rahall of West Virginia.
It’s not just the protocol new freshmen have to learn. There’s also the physical lay of the land. Just ask Valadao and Sacramento Democrat Dr. Ami Bera. Valadao said he got "a little disoriented" in the Capitol. Bera said it's a "maze" of a building and compared it to a hospital.
Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod of Chino also got a little confused when she stepped into a bathroom: "I walked in and [thought], Why are there urinals here?" She double-checked the door, saw the men's room sign and walked right back out.
But these 14 new members have worries off the Hill as well. Their top concern is housing, whether they'll need a roommate, or a car. Dr. Raul Ruiz of the Coachella Valley said he's thinking about the East Coast winter weather, which he experienced during his college days at Harvard: "I’m starting to think of which clothing that I have that are remnants from my time in Boston that will keep me warm here in D.C."
Scott Peters, a Democrat from San Diego, broached another matter that crosses party lines: "One of the longer commutes in Congress." Peters wondered how he'll make a bi-coastal lifestyle work. LaMalfa said the challenge is whether to "move your family back to this place and then just go home for district business and then try to get back and be here? Or is there enough days that they’re home, you should just stay here and hustle back and forth on the weekends?"
The freshmen will have time to think about logistics while they’re home for Thanksgiving. They’ll be back at work at their temporary cubicles in the basement of the Rayburn Building at the end of the month, picking lottery numbers for office space and learning more about the way things work in D.C.
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Former President Bill Clinton recently spoke at an event at Florida International University in Miami.
Bill Clinton is visiting Orange County Tuesday. The former President is lending some star power to a quintet of lesser known Democrats who'd like to become members of the US House of Representatives.
Democrats know that if they want a shot at taking back the House, they have to pick up more than two dozen seats around the country. Redistricting has made California ground zero for turning red to blue.
To help out, Clinton will be the headliner at a UC Irvine rally called "California's Voice."
He'll be there to boost candidates in five of the toughest House races in California. Three are running for open seats: Julia Brownley in Ventura, Alan Lowenthal in Long Beach, and Mark Takano in Riverside. Two others are taking on GOP incumbents: Scott Peters in San Diego, and Raul Ruiz in Palm Springs.
A screen capture of a Democratic Committee television advertisement against Republican U.S. representative Mary Bono Mack. Both political parties have allotted $9 million to California races, including advertisements like this one.
Daniel Scarpinato with the Republican committee says three factors affect spending decisions: the quality of the candidate, poll numbers, and where Democrats are spending their money. He says the GOP is paying more attention to what is the other side is doing, "and how’s it going to affect our decisions."
Jesse Ferguson with the Democratic committee says redistricting has presented his party with an embarrassment of riches: "The map has changed and we have a tremendous number of opportunities across the state." It allows them to go on the offensive, targeting those same three Republican Congressmen the GOP wants to protect — Lungren, Denham, and Bilbray — plus try to unseat Mary Bono Mack in Palm Springs. (Story continues below video window.)
But Republicans have also stepped up their offensive game, targeting three Democratic incumbents: freshman Congressman John Garamendi near Sacramento, Jerry McNerney in the Central Valley and Lois Capps in Santa Barbara.
Democrats are not spending party money to defend incumbents in those races — at least not yet.
The Democratic committee is putting money into a Long Beach race for an open seat, backing Alan Lowenthal, who nosed out GOP challenger Gary Delong in the June primary by just three percentage points.
In two other open seats, dollars are pouring in from both sides. In Ventura County, the Republicans are sending money to Tony Strickland; Democrats to Julia Brownley. In the Inland Empire, the GOP is supporting John Tavaglione; the Democrats are backing Mark Takano.
In addition to TV ads, Scarpinato says Republicans have found another effective way to get the video message out: advertise on the website Hulu: "You might reach more people on Hulu now than you might with a cable television buy."
Democrats are reserving TV time in Sacramento, as well as Palm Springs and even Los Angeles. But Ferguson says the party is putting a chunk of change on its ground game, getting voters to the polls. He stresses that it's a Democratic priority, "particularly in California because it’s not a state that President Obama has to spend a lot of his time and money to turn out the vote."
Of course, the combined $17 million — so far — from the Republican and Democratic committees isn’t the only money being spent on California races. Millions more are pouring in from political action committees. The flood of cash guarantees one thing: lots of TV ads for Congressional candidates dominating the screen for the final four weeks of the campaign.