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

By KK Ottesen
Sunday, February 27, 2011; W10

Near-homelessness. NFL glory. Taking on the mob.

Here, six new members of Congress tell their tales in their own words.

Rep. Hansen Clarke (Mich.-13) | Rep. Frederica Wilson (Fla.-17) | Rep. Jon Runyan (N.J.-3) | Rep. Allen West (Fla.-22) | Rep. Tim Griffin (Ark.-2) | Rep. Kristi Noem (S.D.-at large)

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Rep. Hansen Clarke (Mich.-13)

Party: Democratic

Age: 53

Previously: Michigan state senator

FYI: Trained as an artist. He is a lawyer and grew up in inner-city Detroit. His mother was African American; his father, Bangladeshi. Clarke is the first Bangladeshi American in Congress.

One of the last things my mom told me when I left for college is, "Don't come back to the neighborhood." She knew her health was failing and that now I had a chance to do something with my life. But I had to come back. I don't know if I want to call it a "fire" or whatever, but it's just in me. How I grew up, what's happened to my city, my neighborhood, maybe, more importantly, the people that I grew up with -- that's the fundamental reason I'm doing this.

When I was a kid, I saw the [1968] riots firsthand, saw stores in my neighborhood burned to the ground, saw a man murdered when I was 9 years old. My mother sent me away to prep school to get me out of the neighborhood. Right after I went, my friend that used to help me academically was robbed in our neighborhood. Thrown in the trunk of a car overnight. When he got out, he was fine, physically; mentally, he was never the same. So, I'm able to go on to Cornell and Georgetown Law School, and he's never worked a day in his life. I'm one of the few guys still alive from my neighborhood -- literally. So to try to equalize it out for people so that everybody has a chance; to try, in a sense, to make up for that loss -- that drives me.

Look, there was a point in time, as a young adult, when I lost the things I had valued -- all of them. I loved my parents; they were gone. I had a great scholarship to college; I lost it, dropped out. I bought a car; it was gone. I lost my income; I couldn't find a job. I couldn't sleep at night, and then I would sleep during the day -- I'd just given up completely. I just existed. I got on food stamps, and then my food stamps were cut off. I didn't know when I was going to end up on the street, but I knew it was going to happen.

I know that a lot of successful people who overcome adversity say they were always confident, that they always knew that they were going to make it if they kept their eye on the prize. It was the opposite for me: At that point in time, I knew I wasn't going to make it; I knew it was over for me. But then I got a job created by an act of Congress; it was the old CETA program: Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. I was assigned to work with truant high school students. Here I felt like the biggest loser, but now I was starting to work with kids, to help them. And that's what did it. That's what turned me around. Yeah, it gave me a paycheck, but the fact that I could actually help people rejuvenated me. I decided to go back to school, back to Cornell and graduate.

See, that's when I realized: Anything can happen to anybody. When I thought that things were going to end for me, I had the same intelligence, insight, aptitude that I have now. Human will can only take you so far. So if I can let people know: There's somebody here to help you; your government's here to serve you, that can inspire people somehow to do things they already have in them. I may not be able solve all problems for people, but if they see that I'm genuinely trying to help them, that gives them the confidence to do something on their own. It's about empowering people to realize the obvious: In a representative democracy, they're in charge. And the fact that I go to the single mom living in the shelter, to people living on the street, as the guy that works for them, their congressman, it elevates people that have given up -- not just on government but on life. That's powerful.

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Rep. Frederica Wilson (Fla.-17)

Party: Democratic

Age: 68

Previously: Florida state senator, state representative; school board member

FYI: Served as a school principal. She founded 5000 Role Models of Excellence, a mentoring program for at-risk boys. She is known for her intricate hats, worn in the tradition of her Bahamian grandmother.

My father finished the third grade, and that was it. But he was a quiet giant who fought injustice. Growing up in Texas, he went through a lot of abuse from the larger population. He could tell you about racism that would cause you to weep. That's where he got his fight from, the treatment that was levied against him. He couldn't take it, so he fled Texas and wound up in Miami, where he met my mother. When I was a little girl growing up, I would watch him. He taught people how to register to vote at our home, and how to maneuver the legislative process. I helped him, so it just kind of stuck with me that it was something that I was supposed to do. It was almost like instinct. And so when I would see an injustice, if I felt that I could make it right, I kind of stuck my nose into it.

When I was a principal, the county commission gave this company permission to build a garbage plant right across the street from my school. I said: "Please, you can't do this. I have 900 children in this school." I went away on vacation, and when I came back, I smelled an odor blocks away. I couldn't believe it! I said, "How am I going to have school with this horrible odor?" We couldn't have physical education outside; the children couldn't even stand outside to catch the school bus. So I wrote letters to the governor, and I had my children write letters. I put them on school buses and took them down to each county commission land use committee meeting, and they stood up on blocks and testified. Then it was indicated to me and my family that it was the Mafia's initiative and to leave it alone. My own children were at my school, and my son would catch the gifted bus on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. Someone called and said, "She better leave [the plant] alone, or one time her son might not get to that gifted program." So I called the school district, and they said, "We told you that you need to leave it alone." When I went home that night, I prayed. I said to myself: Am I supposed to come to this school every day and just pretend that that's not there? I mean, what am I going to say to my students? I couldn't come up with an explanation, so I just kept fighting. And we closed that plant down. It was a $27 million-dollar plant, operating full steam, and we closed it down.

What it does is embolden you for the next fight, that you can make a difference. Whenever something comes to me that is not just or will make a devastating impact on a group of people, and I feel that I can make it right, or fix it, then I go after it. And I fight. I fight real hard.

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Rep. Jon Runyan (N.J.-3)

Party: Republican

Age: 37

Previously: NFL offensive lineman

FYI: Has stood 6-foot-7 since he was 15. He was a high school all-state basketball player, two-time Michigan shot-put champion, and received a football scholarship to University of Michigan. He played 14 seasons in the NFL (Oilers, Titans, Eagles, Chargers) and was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2002. He also played in two Super Bowls.

I got indoctrinated in football at the University of Michigan. They have a tradition there of offensive line play, a certain attitude, and it is, quite frankly, intimidating your opponent: getting inside their head and harassing them. Because if you have a guy rattled, he's more worried about fighting you than he is about doing his job. I always got tagged on those lists of the dirtiest players in the NFL, but those guys are the ones that have the ability to turn it on and turn it off. Because you can't do what you did on the field off the field; otherwise, you'd end up in jail. That's kind of your job description, but that's really not your personality.

My past career [in the NFL] was more physical, but there was a huge mental aspect to it, too. And I think that carries over. Going into the campaign, everybody gives you the scary stories, you know, how tough it is, how nasty it's going to be. I'm like, Okay, well, you see what I just got done doing for a living?

I [draw] from my past career of having a short memory. It's like, yeah, on the football field, I'm gonna give up a sack, but 40 seconds later's the next play. It's the same kind of deal around here. You might think somebody's with you on something, and they turn on you, but the next deal's an hour later. You've got to be able to move past that. Whether it's on the athletic field or here in Congress, you have to be able to flip that switch: to have that competitive mind but also have the personal relationships and the personality off the field that is more civil, shall we say.

Developing those relationships and being accessible to people is another trait that carries over well. I mean, a lot of people in professional sports, they're not accessible to people. People come up to talk to them, and they just shun them. It's the same thing here. You're representing that person; you can't just close the door and walk away from them. You're there to sit down and talk to them, and listen to what they have to say. Because when you do sit down and talk to people, everybody's pretty much just a person. Nobody's special. We're all in this together; we're all on this team. We all have what we're good at, what we specialize in, but without each other, we're not going to accomplish anything.

Quite frankly, all's I'd like people to say about me is: "He did the best he could do. He worked his tail off for us."

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Rep. Allen West (Fla.-22)

Party: Republican

Age: 50

Previously: Adviser to the Afghan army; lieutenant colonel, U.S. Army

FYI: A decorated veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the only Republican member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

All I wanted to grow up to be was a soldier. That's all I thought about. My dad was a soldier, my older brother was a Marine, my mother worked for Marines, and so I couldn't wait until the days that I could step into line just the same as they had done. It's just who we are, who we were raised to be.

For a young, black teenager growing up in the inner city, those influences got you on the right path as far as discipline, as far as commitment to your country. I did 22 years' service in the Army. And I'm here continuing service to the country, just in a different uniform.

I know everyone is kind of perplexed about, you know, a black Republican congressman from South Florida who's a very strong conservative. But I think when you look at the basis of a conservative ideology -- individual responsibility, accountability, faith, good education and national security -- that's how I was raised.

I think it's important to talk about conservative principles and values and not make it such a boogeyman thing. You look at what's happened in our country, and it does seem so overwhelming. But I've been in some tough situations before. I mean, in 2003, they were talking about sending me to prison for eight years [for aggressively interrogating an Iraqi detainee]. I took responsibility for it and said to the Army, "You judge me as you need to judge me, and I will accept that punishment." I think that is what showed a lot of people that here is a guy that will stand upon what he believes, will not try to blame others. And I moved on with my life. So those are the type of things that I can bring to the table, being able to stand with resolve and resiliency and to just keep going forward.

Character always prevails -- that's what I tell my daughters. And character means doing what is right when no one is watching. You never want to question that. Because then it just becomes easier to question it the next time, and you end up being like some of the guys we see up here in Washington, D.C., where all of a sudden it's easier to, you know, slide that little ethics rule or do the things that you know are not right.

That doesn't mean you're perfect; we're human, and all of us have our faults and shortcomings, but you never want to question what's right. And even though you get off of your azimuth, you come back onto your true north.

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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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