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Democratic freshmen go to end of line

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

They call themselves "the Mighty Nine."

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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 state legislative 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 congressman Mike Ward (Ky.) came to the House 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.

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