By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The moment came for Nancy Boyda when she planted her derriere on the marble balustrade outside the U.S. Capitol, gazed up at the illuminated dome and drew in the mild evening air. She knew she wasn't in Kansas anymore.
"It hit me that I was going to be sitting there," said Boyda, a Democrat and 51-year-old chemist from Topeka who had never before held public office but is among 53 newly elected members of the House here for a crash course in the job, as well as the town. "The whole thing is a 'wow' moment."
Last week, they were a social worker, a sheriff, a college professor, an allergist. Yesterday, they came to Washington as lawmakers-to-be, bringing a giddy enthusiasm tempered by a sense of purpose and a dash of awe.
The 40 Democrats and 13 Republicans who will join the 110th Congress in January are spending the week learning grand traditions and nitty-gritty details, including proper decorum, pay and benefits, and how to pick a chief of staff. There was a lecture on how to evacuate the Capitol during an emergency, complete with color photos of escape masks to be used during a biochemical threat -- each member gets 15 masks.
The moment came for Brad Ellsworth, 48, a county sheriff from Indiana, when the freshman class was escorted into the empty House chamber yesterday morning. "It certainly has a whole new meaning when you know you're going to be sitting there, making decisions for the country," he said. "The only thing good about having this wide-eyed deer-in-the-headlights feeling is that everyone here is going through the same thing. "
Ellsworth said the best advice he got yesterday was to hire someone with a passion for organization as his chief of staff.
And the moment came for Yvette Clark, 41, a Democrat from Brooklyn, when she stepped off the plane at Reagan National Airport on Sunday and was greeted at the gate by two Marines in dress uniform. "They carried my luggage and made sure I got into my car," the New York City Council member said.
The members-elect heard presentations on protocol by the House parliamentarian, learned that they were limited to 22 staff members and that their office space would be determined by the luck of the draw, a lottery on Friday.
About those offices? "They gave a list and we've got to scope it out, what's closest to the Metro, what's closest to shopping. We're trying to get a strategy going here," Clark said.
They also spent a good part of the morning hearing about ethics -- a topic that dominated many of their campaigns and has motivated new and veteran members to push for reform and tighter regulations.
"In the Minnesota state House, no one can give you anything -- I was surprised that you can take gifts here up to a certain amount," said Keith Ellison, 43, a Democratic state lawmaker from Minneapolis and the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.
Although the formal session on dealing with the media wasn't scheduled until today, freshmen got a taste of it yesterday, when they ran into a small throng of reporters camped outside their closed-door sessions. As a television reporter started questioning Boyda, she handed her handbag to her campaign manager and husband, Steve, who was standing off camera. Steve Boyda, a lawyer, was learning the duties of the politician's spouse.
Several newcomers were still recovering from last week's election and seemed a little shocked to be walking the polished marble floors of the Capitol.
Chris Murphy ducked out of the day-long orientation session in the Cannon Office Building and lingered in a hallway with a cellphone against his ear as he returned calls from a list of phone messages that filled four pages. "I still have thank-you calls to make," said Murphy, 33, a state lawmaker from Connecticut who drew national attention by defeating 12-term Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R).
David Loebsack, 53, a political science professor from Iowa, is another improbable congressman. The Democrat who had never before won public office defeated 15-term Rep. Jim Leach (R). Yesterday, Loebsack was absorbing the notion that he would be making public policy instead of studying it.
"I grew up in poverty with a single mom who had mental illness," Loebsack said. "If anyone had told me I'd grow up to teach at Cornell College with a PhD, I would have thought they were crazy. If anyone had told me that I would get elected to Congress, I would have thought they were from another planet. I'm living proof of the American dream."
Yesterday evening, Loebsack and the other freshmen were invited to a reception at the White House, another moment he said he would cherish. "I didn't know we were going to the White House -- I just found out," he said.
Many new members came to Washington with one or two aides. They have to hire staff for their Capitol office as well as at least one district office, figure out where they're going to live in Washington, whether they want to commute home or bring their families to the area.
"It's like starting a new life and a new business at the same time," Ellsworth said. "For people who are used to knowing what they're doing, where they're working, where they're living, it's a little weird."
Steve Kagan, 56, a physician from Wisconsin and another first-time officeholder, had already scoped out a small apartment a block and a half from the Capitol. It faces an alley and has no windows, he said. "But it's got room for a bed," the Democrat said. "And air conditioning. I hear it gets hot down here."