When Joe Courtney, small-town Connecticut lawyer, knocked off a Republican incumbent in the closest 2006 congressional race in the country -- a margin of 83 votes out of more than 242,000 ballots cast -- he won more than a seat in the House of Representatives. He earned an ironic nickname: Landslide Joe. While in Washington, Landslide Joe stays in nearby Capitol Hill for a variety of reasons, among which is that he has no car in the city. He blew the engine of his old minivan back in Connecticut during the campaign, and he hasn't gotten around to replacing it. Not a fan of paying for cabs, he generally walks to places.
But even if he had a limousine, the Democratic freshman congressman's instinct for self-preservation would guarantee he didn't stray far. If not in his office or at the Capitol doing official business, he is regularly raising campaign money a few blocks away. His euphoria over making it to Congress has already been tempered by the recognition that his razor-thin 2006 victory reflects at once his own vulnerability and the fragility of his party's new congressional control.
It's not just that Courtney is a self-described "Irish fatalist." His career underscores the reality of national politics in an era where the major parties are stuck in bitter parity. Any slight advantage is hard won and easily lost. To even dream of staying in power takes a constant stream of campaign contributions, so that compiling legislative achievements and "representing constituents" must compete on a congressman's to-do list with never-ending fundraising, especially for a first-termer such as Courtney. Add to that the fickle nature of Connecticut voters, and you can understand when Courtney admits to running scared in politics. "You can't count on much," he says.
WITH DARKNESS FALLING ON A COLD WINTER NIGHT, COURTNEY IS FINALLY TRUDGING HOME. He lives alone in a small Washington basement apartment. It is about a 10-minute walk from his Capitol Hill office -- past the Library of Congress and around the corner from the Supreme Court, points of reference that, as he notes, make his abode sound undeservingly upscale. The front door has bars on it, and he's having difficulty getting his key in the lock because the light around the door is lousy. The place -- for which he pays $1,350 a month in rent -- is a cross between drab university housing and an economy motel room. One of its walls is made of red brick that, apparently, no one got around to drywalling.
There are only a few furnishings: a bed, a small couch, a chair for a solitary visitor, a TV, a tiny table. The table is covered with books, most of them about Iraq and national security. Courtney doesn't have a big staff to do prodigious research as some of the senior members do, which means that, like an average citizen, he must scour newspapers and other publications to keep up to date on the issues. He tosses his overcoat on the little couch. Mostly he views this ascetic place as a way station in which to shower and shave, decompress and crash for a few hours, before rushing back to his office by 7:15 the next morning.
"I didn't clean up," he says to me. Khakis and a couple of worn shirts are strewn on his unmade bed. Two pairs of athletic shoes, an unopened box of Titleist golf balls and a blue folder that he received months ago during freshmen orientation are lying askew on the floor. His four suits stand like little sentries at attention in a closet.
He turns to an aide, who thinks the place looks lonely, even depressing. "It's functional," Courtney says, as if reading his mind. "All you need."
Courtney could have considered rooming with other congressmen, as some representatives do in the interests of saving money and enjoying a little camaraderie. But a friend and former Connecticut congressman named Toby Moffett had given him some advice before he entered office: Get your own place and space -- you'll welcome the opportunity to be alone. At the end of a long day of chattering lobbyists and cacophonous committee meetings, of impassioned rants and heartbreaking pleas, it's sometimes a luxury, Courtney says, to come back to this hovel and hear no human voice at all. "Quiet," he says, investing the word with a kind of dreaminess.
He lives about 10 blocks from his Connecticut congressional colleague Rosa DeLauro if he ever needs to talk to a friend. And, generally on Tuesday nights, DeLauro hosts a private, informal get-together for fellow Democratic representatives ("an off-the record gathering," Courtney happily notes).
But the romanticized era of nightly congressional poker games, of friendships and political alliances forged around Scotch and stogies, is long gone, Courtney realizes. The day-and-night political demands on the modern representative, notably the imperative to raise money, leave less time than ever for collegial activities. Sometimes he'll slip out in the evenings to meet a group who might be able to help him in his next campaign. Other nights he is just another freshman studying policy and keeping an eye on his district's political maneuverings.
"You have homework," Courtney says. "There're things to read to get ready for committee meetings. You have to get ready for the weekend back in your district . . . You're on your BlackBerry. You have to make phone calls . . . The pace is like a freight train's."
Slacking off would be career suicide. Courtney must prove himself to his 2nd District constituents in eastern Connecticut, but he must also set aside enough time to raise funds for a new campaign that has already begun. The margin for mistakes on either front is small for a freshman. Not long after arriving in Washington, Courtney and his staff are fearful of committing the errors that often plague callow freshmen -- either failing to push the right people hard enough for attention, or pushing the wrong people too hard. He and his staff have had no shortage of worries: How long would it take him to learn the arcane labyrinth of the legislative process? How should he try to forge alliances with the relatively few members who hold genuine power in the House? How long until Courtney knew the various chairmen's likes, dislikes, quirks -- how long till he knew what moved them or where his interests converged with theirs? What did he, as a mere freshman, have to bargain with?