The desk drawers and file cabinets were empty, the walls were bare and the new receptionist was still trying to figure out how to transfer calls.
But someone took care of the most important task last week: affixing a nameplate outside the door of the cramped, fourth-floor warren in the Longworth House Office Building. It read, "Congressman Chris Van Hollen, Maryland."
After a bruising, closely watched, 20-month campaign and the euphoria of election night, Christopher Van Hollen Jr. (D) will take the oath of office today as the region's newest member of Congress and one of only four who ousted an incumbent of the opposing party in November.
If unseating popular Republican House veteran Constance A. Morella was the hard part, Van Hollen says he will now attempt the near-impossible: As one of the most junior members of the minority party, he wants to make an immediate impact on Capitol Hill.
"Obviously, it will require a lot of effort to get things done," Van Hollen said Saturday, as he wrapped up a restful week of vacation, out of cell-phone reach, in Vermont's Green Mountains. "But I've been a backbencher before, and I know how to wage battles from the back row."
Seven years ago, as a state senator, Van Hollen made his first real splash by persuading a group of low-ranking lawmakers to try to derail a $200 million plan to build the Baltimore Ravens football stadium. They fell two votes shy.
But before Van Hollen fosters dreams of doing the same in Washington, some Capitol Hill veterans say he might be wise to first take a long look at the less-than-inspiring view from his freshman office windows: a set of smokestacks.
"As they say in Kansas, he's not in Annapolis anymore," said Leon G. Billings, a former state delegate who lobbies on Capitol Hill. "He's going to be a relatively small fish in a very large pond, and that will take an adjustment."
Over the past few weeks, Van Hollen has been trying to prepare for that adjustment. He has attended the formal orientation for members, where he and the 49 other freshman lawmakers learned such basics as organizing their offices and using the computer system. He also attended a program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he sat through a wide range of policy lectures on the budget, Social Security and foreign policy.
More importantly, he said, he has been meeting with members of Congress, trying to start forging the kind of relationships that made him one of the most effective political movers in the Maryland Senate.
"The key for me is going to be to form coalitions and find areas of common ground," Van Hollen said.
James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, said Van Hollen is making the right moves.
"He knows if he wants to get something passed, he's going to have to work with someone else's bill and with the opposition party," Thurber said. "It will be very difficult for Chris Van Hollen to get noticed."
Van Hollen does have a bit of an advantage. He enters Congress not as an anonymous face to most members, but as the smiling face they saw plastered across Washington television screens during the fall in a seemingly endless round of campaign advertisements.
He was the man who took on Mark K. Shriver, a Kennedy family scion, in a bitter Democratic primary, and whose general election contest for the 8th District seat drew national attention in a year when it appeared that control of the House of Representatives hung in the balance. In the end, he was one of just two Democrats who ousted a Republican (the other was Rep.-elect Tim Bishop, who beat Rep. Felix Grucci in New York's 1st District).
"It's a strange position that everyone on the Hill knows who he is and probably followed his race," said Michael D. Barnes, the last Democrat to represent Maryland's 8th District. "It certainly gives him a little advantage."
But for the most part, Barnes said, being a congressman in the Washington suburbs presents more challenges than benefits. For starters, Barnes said, Van Hollen can forget about seeing his family.
"You have all the school groups and Boy Scout troops who can get on the subway to see you, and they do. You're a local phone call away, and they call," Barnes said. "The time demands are just beyond belief."
And within the district, which spans Montgomery County and a portion of Prince George's County, supporters and interest groups are constantly seeking face time with their congressman.
"When the day ends," Barnes said, "the average member [of Congress] can go to the movies. Chris will have eight things on his schedule for that night, and the next morning he'll probably have three breakfast meetings in Bethesda, Rockville and Silver Spring. It's a very different challenge than the average member of Congress faces."
As his chief of staff to help him through the tangle of commitments, Van Hollen has hired Kay Casstevens, who spent 20 years on the Hill as a congressional aide and later as legislative liaison for then-Vice President Al Gore (D). She worked most recently in Annapolis, as a deputy chief of staff to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D).
"It's a matter of focus, and he's got that," she said last week.
Over the past few weeks, Casstevens's focus has been on filling the office with staff members who can handle not only the district's heavy constituent demands, but also the issues Van Hollen will want to pursue with legislation, such as energy policy and health care costs.
In part, hiring is on hold until two weeks from now, when she and Van Hollen expect to learn about committee assignments. Van Hollen's hopes of breaking through as a freshman may hinge on his effort to land a coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee, a panel that rarely has room for a rookie from the minority party.
"Somewhat unrealistic" is how Thurber describes Van Hollen's hopes.
Casstevens is also overseeing the search for district offices, which she said will require finding space in Rockville and, because of redistricting, an office in Prince George's. And she is helping Van Hollen to prepare for issues that will come to the House floor immediately.
At the same time, Van Hollen added, he will immediately start the dreaded task of raising money. He needs to retire about $200,000 in debt from his campaign, and then there's the next election to consider.
After all, it's just 22 months and counting to Election Day 2004.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.