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Nine incoming House Democrats assume place in pecking order: the end

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 9:26 PM

They call themselves "the Mighty Nine."

Which is half true - there are, in fact, nine of them.

But "mighty" is definitely the wrong word for the nine lonely Democrats who will be sworn in as House members on Wednesday. They defied last fall's Republican landslide - winning mainly in strong Democratic districts - to become the smallest freshman class either party has put forth since at least 1915.

They include former statehouse leaders, a lieutenant governor, a big-city mayor. Now, at the high point of their careers, they must adjust to life as Capitol Hill's lowest of the low.

"We're people that are, you know, used to rolling up our sleeves and getting things done. I suspect we'll find it frustrating when we don't have the position in the Congress to do that," said John Carney (Del.), 54, a former two-term lieutenant governor who won an open congressional seat. "I don't think it'll deter us from working any harder."

History, however, is not encouraging.

Former representative Mike Ward (Ky.) came to Congress under similar circumstances in 1995, as one of 13 Democrats elected during the major 1994 Republican victory. He said his class quickly learned that Congress has a pecking order - and that they came at the end of it. The only way up was to wait. And wait. And wait.

"The Congress is the most futile place in the world, and the most discouraging, and the most depressing" for people in this position, he said.

"You just look around and see the people who have been there for four, six, eight years - 10 years, 12 years - are still just one of the many," said Ward, who was not reelected after serving one term and now works as a political consultant. "You're behind those guys who ain't dying and ain't getting beat anytime soon."

The nine incoming members began moving into their offices on Monday. A staff member guided Karen Bass (Calif.), 57, through the Capitol's basement tunnels and odd little subways, and showed her how she gets to walk around the metal detectors (Bass's special lapel pin hadn't arrived, but the police had already recognized her).

"I turn around and I see my name on the wall," she said. "It made me stop and take a deep breath." Once in her office, Bass closed the door behind her, kicked back and looked for a moment at the still-disconnected television, imagining herself jumping up and running out the door to catch a vote.

"This was real," she said.

Even in victory, the Democrats became a sign of how low their party's fortunes sank on election night.

All won on friendly turf, some very friendly. Only two, Cedric Richmond (La.) and Colleen Hanabusa (Hawaii), beat Republican incumbents. But both of those were traditionally blue seats that had turned red in unusual elections.

For now, the nine appear to have learned one of Washington's lessons: When reality isn't pretty, try to ignore it.

"Minority is really just a mind-set," said Hansen Clarke (Mich.), 53, a former state legislator who defeated Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick in the Democratic primary. His father was from Bangladesh, which makes Clarke the first Bangladeshi American in Congress. "It's no obstacle."

And yet, it almost assuredly will be.

Once Republicans take over the House, Democrats will find it hard to get their bills passed out of GOP-dominated committees. On the chamber floor, they could see their amendments blocked or voted down.

But for the nine new members, their extra-junior status will add other problems. Carney, whose state is home to large credit card companies, wants a spot on the Financial Services Committee. But freshmen often don't get their first choices.

And, in committee, the freshmen will continually be reminded of their lowly status. The most senior members get to ask their questions first. Freshmen go last, when the excitement and the audience are often gone.

"The challenge is going to be not only being in the minority, but also being bottom of the pecking order," said Hanabusa, 59, who defeated Rep. Charles Djou (R). She will become one of eight Asian American representatives, according to House statistics. "These are the deck of cards we've been dealt. And we've got to make the most of it."

The incoming Democrats make a sharp contrast with the freshmen across the aisle. According to House figures, the Democratic freshman class is 44 percent women (four in nine) and 56 percent African American (five in nine), compared with 11 percent women (nine in 82) and less than 2 percent (two in 82) on the GOP side.

Among the GOP freshmen are five Hispanics; the Democrats have none.

The Republican class also comes with different experience. Many GOP freshmen had never run for office before. Eight of the nine Democrats have held an elected post. They include Bass, who was speaker of her state's assembly; Hanabusa, who was president of her state's Senate; and David Cicilline (R.I.), 49, the former mayor of Providence.

Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who will become House minority leader, has already given Bass and Cicilline seats on her caucus's Steering and Policy Committee. She has a weekly meeting with freshman and sophomore Democrats.

But the freshmen know they also need friends across the aisle. So, like new kids at school, they're looking for icebreakers.

For Hanabusa, it will be her home state. Who doesn't want to talk about Hawaii? Carney hopes he can get into a regular basketball game. Cicilline is hoping to create a kind of dinner party caucus. What if the nine Democrats found nine Republicans to socialize with regularly?

"I haven't developed a name yet," he said. "You can only come if you can bring a person of the opposite party."

Unfortunately, history indicates that none of that would do much good, at least in the short term. The freshman Democrats of 1995, for instance, had to wait 12 years before their party came back to power.

Five of the 13 are still in Congress, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), who rose to chairman the House ethics panel, and Rep. Chaka Fattah (Pa.), who found a place on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

There is some hope for the not-so-mighty nine: Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) was one of 13 Republicans elected in the Democratic wave of 2006. Just four years later, he will be House majority whip, the third-ranking Republican, when the new Congress is sworn in on Wednesday.

Fattah offered advice for this group of freshmen: First, wait - and keep winning. "It's going to take an election or two more for them to really be in a position to kind of live up to their own expectations."

Another piece of advice: golf. Play it. That way, you can meet other lawmakers in a more casual setting.

But here again, the hyperdrive metabolism of the nine - the very thing that got them to Congress - could make it hard to live in their new world.

"I don't think that I have the proper temperament" for golf, Hanabusa said. "I'm good only for the first five holes, and after that I'm thinking about what else I could be doing."

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