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Freshman California Congressman Garamendi talks about life in Washington

Freshman Congressman John Garamendi
Freshman Congressman John Garamendi
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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California’s newest member of Congress may be a freshman on Capitol Hill, but he’s a political veteran with more years of public service than most of his colleagues.

Former Lieutenant Governor John Garamendi hadn’t planned to run for Congress.

For nine months, the veteran Democratic politician from Northern California was in the race for governor. Then last April, he suddenly dropped out and aimed for Capitol Hill.

Garamendi says his decision was pragmatic. The gubernatorial primary was still more than a year away, but already the 64-year-old Garamendi was too far behind in fundraising and in the polls.

So when Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher vacated her Walnut Creek seat to work in the Obama administration, Garamendi jumped.

"I had a good chance of winning this district," he says. "Turns out, I did win. Governor? Maybe win, maybe not. And so, let’s go to Washington where things are actually happening."

Things were happening on Nov. 5 from the moment his plane touched down.

Two days after he’d won the election and just hours after he’d flown to Washington to be sworn in, Congressman Garamendi cast his first vote. It help the Democrats narrowly pass a health care bill.

Garamendi may be the second-to-last in seniority in the House of Representatives, but he says he's come with a secret weapon: decades of experience with House leaders and cabinet secretaries.

He says, "You can have 30 years here and still be on the outside. Or you can be here two weeks and have friends and relationships and build with that. And that’s what I’m doing."

Garamendi is serving on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and on the Science and Technology Committee. Legislative work is nothing new to Garamendi. He spent more than three decades in public service as a state lawmaker, insurance commissioner, and lieutenant governor. Sandwiched in the middle are three years in the 1990s as deputy secretary of the interior in the Clinton administration.

Garamendi says he spent a lot of time in the buildings on Capitol Hill being quizzed by members of Congress. They wanted to know what was going on in the Department of the Interior.

"So I was in front of the dais, being quizzed by the members," he says. "And now I’ll be on the dais, quizzing others."

Despite his familiarity with the geography of Capitol Hill, Garamendi says there’s always something new to learn.

"The tunnels of the Capitol require a guide," Garamendi confesses. "I’ve spent time lost in the tunnels of the Capitol."

Congressman Garamendi admits he has made a few rookie mistakes. One involved the electronic process of casting a vote. Luckily, a fellow member was watching. Garamendi says mentors are a tradition in Congress.

"I’ve spent a couple of hours with one of the most conservative Republicans in the California delegation talking about life in Washington," he says. They talked about details of the votes, the inner workings of committees, and simple things like how to get an airplane ticket back home. Garamendi says they'll disagree on every vote, but people want to help you.

And Garamendi is willing to return the favor. You can ask, but he won’t name the GOP congressman who showed him the ropes. Garamendi says it’s not in that Republican’s best interests to reveal he helped out a rookie Democrat on Capitol Hill.