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Roads to the Capitol: Six new members of Congress on their personal journeys

An athlete. A principal. A painter. These six new members of Congress come from all walks of life.

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Rep. Tim Griffin (Ark.-2)

Party: Republican

Age: 42

Previously: Lawyer, small-business owner

FYI: Served in the White House Office of Political Affairs in 2005. He served as research director and deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee during the 2004 presidential campaign.

I was that guy in college watching "Crossfire" and C-SPAN. I knew early on, you know, that I was really interested in the political system, and I wanted to do something in Washington. My dad is a theologian by trade and likes to read, but he'd never been involved politically in any significant way, and my mom hadn't, either. But when other kids were out skiing and doing the more traditional vacations, I guess, my dad was taking me to places of historical significance: Williamsburg, Jamestown, those types of places.

I remember in third grade, my dad was asked to perform a wedding in Boston, Massachusetts, for a friend of ours. I got to tag along, and it was sort of an adventure. We got in our van and drove through the night on the way up there. And I will never forget [getting] to Washington in the early morning -- I want to say, 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 3 o'clock. At that time, none of the barriers were there, and we literally drove up and parked in front of the steps of the Capitol. That was right about the time that Schoolhouse Rock was running "I'm Just a Bill." So in my collective sort of jumble of memory, those two things sort of go together. There was a protester sleeping on the steps; I still have a Polaroid somewhere of that guy sleeping with his sign. We didn't get to tour or anything, but I remember that particular event with specificity. We went on to Boston, to Lexington and Concord, Plymouth, the Salem Witch Museum. And then on the way back, to Philadelphia: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall. That trip, for me, was like the opening of a gate.

I was interested in Revolutionary War history, in government, politics because of that trip. I was volunteering on political campaigns even as early as high school and had a variety of jobs in government in my mid- to late 20s and 30s. So, having worked as a staffer in Rayburn, having watched debate from the balcony as an intern, being sworn in the other night was a real highlight. One of the things that really brings it home to me is that I have a picture of me with Rudy Giuliani walking out of the Rayburn building. I was looking at it the other day and noticed that behind us is the west wall of Longworth -- and that's where my office is now. It's an honor and a blessing, you know; it is something I wanted to do.

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Rep. Kristi Noem (S.D.-at large)

Party: Republican

Age: 39

Previously: South Dakota state representative and assistant majority leader; small-business owner

FYI: Worked as a rancher, farmer, hunting lodge owner and operator. She is the liaison to the Republican House leadership team for this freshman class.

My dad was a cowboy, and he was tough. And it kind of seemed like he could do just about anything. He was the one that I spent every day with, so I just knew that I would probably go to school and then come back to the farm. Be a farmer and rancher with my dad. But when I was going to college, my dad was killed in an accident on our farm. That death has always been, in our family, a defining point. We still talk about: "Well, that was before Dad died," or "That was after Dad died." Everything changed then.

I came back home to take over the business. We were just trying to survive, trying to keep the business going and keep the family together. We got hit right away with estate taxes because of the death. So we had to make some tough decisions. We had to decide if we were going to sell land to pay off those taxes or if we were going to take out a loan. We took out a loan. So, for 10 years we paid on that loan to pay those taxes off. And for me, I had a tough time reconciling, you know, how does this tragedy happen to our family and all of a sudden we're in debt because of it? So that got me interested in laws and regulations and how it impacts people and families. But I didn't run for public office until 2006.

I was visiting the [South Dakota] legislature on some ag[riculture] issues with my brother. We'd gone there to talk to our representatives -- and never heard back from 'em. I think it was the first time I thought: Boy, if I was there, I would sure at least get back to people. So I got to thinking that maybe I could do that. It was a big decision -- we were raising three kids -- but my husband and I just looked at it and said, It's challenge and opportunity, and if it doesn't work for our family, we won't run again.

We went into [this congressional race] with the same attitude. We decided we'd run as a family, so the kids came campaigning a lot. I'm sure at times it seemed like a circus: We're going to a parade today and then a dinner. But throughout the campaign, we got more and more confident, more and more sure that it was exactly what we were supposed to be doing. It's been a wonderful experience for my kids. They are much more aware of their government than I ever was at that age. A lot of it happened when we were driving from place to place, because we'd have discussions about what people said at the last place. We would talk about the leaders in this country and their goals and priorities, and we talked a lot about the founding fathers. I think, on this campaign, history came alive for my kids. And because of the experiences they've had meeting all the great people in the state, they're very open kids.

Like when we came out here for the swearing-in, my son, Booker, was walking around and shaking everybody's hands and introducing himself, which is kind of funny for an 8-year-old boy to be doing. My brothers and sisters were watching him, and we were chuckling about it. I mean, I probably wasn't looking people in the eye at that point in time. Then when we were standing on the House floor, and I was being sworn in, he kept turning around to me, and he'd say, "Should I pay attention to this?" And I said: "Yes, you should pay attention to this. This is a big deal."

KK Ottesen, a Washington freelance writer and photographer, is a frequent contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.


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