The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Max Rose came to Congress to do big things. But first, he has to do dumb things.

Rep.-elect Max Rose (D-N.Y.) stands outside the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Even a small, ridiculous event can become a parable about the ways the best-laid plans of congressmen go awry in this town. So it was for Max Rose, who came to Capitol Hill with a plan to win the lottery.

Rose and his fellow freshman members of the House had gathered in a hearing room to draw numbers out of a box and determine who would get to pick the good offices that remained for the newbies. This was the office lottery, the last event in a two-week-long orientation.

Rose, who knocked out a Republican incumbent in a Trump-loving district that encompasses Staten Island and a sliver of south Brooklyn, didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Having just come off the campaign trail, he hasn’t collected a paycheck for more than a year, and he plans to sleep in his office at night to save on rent. (Hours after this story published online, Rose’s office reached out to say he had been joking about bunking in his congressional office.)

It would be easy for everyone in the room to feel as if they had luck on their side. They had, after all, recently won hard-fought elections, and if they’re being honest, it had as much to do with circumstance as hard work. Democrats in particular had a lot to be thankful for, snagging about 40 Republican-held seats and riding the national mood to a majority in the House of Representatives.

The class includes countless people who defied long odds; the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, the first Muslim women, the first Native American women. One Democrat, Gil Cisneros, helped finance his campaign after winning $266 million in an actual lottery.

Rose, who is 5-foot-6 and has thinning hair that sprouts out of his head like a recently seeded Chia Pet, wouldn’t need luck for his plan to work, but he would need allies. During orientation, he and a crew of fellow Democrats, all military veterans, formed their own Gang of Nine. Now, as the hearing room filled with new members, he lobbied them on the plan: They would band together and choose offices near one another, even if it meant sacrificing square footage and location. They had risen to the pinnacle of power, and now they wanted to be able to hang with their friends.

It was an early chance to build compromise — and trust. “This is a test of character,” said Rose, 32, waving a finger in the air. “I’ve got to be a man of my word.”

His chief of staff, Anne Sokolov, arched an eyebrow.

“And my chief wants to fold already?” Rose said.

“Yeah, I want to fold,” Sokolov said. “I want the best office. No one cares about their office until they do.”

“Under no circumstances will we break the coalition,” Rose said. “If we do, we are just another part of what’s wrong in Washington, D.C.”

But Washington was quickly changing, as is evident by the 85 new faces sitting inside the lottery room. There was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year old democratic socialist, sitting near the front, with her nearly 1 million Instagram followers in tow. There was former mixed martial artist Sharice Davids doing push-ups at the front of the room for luck, and Colin Allred, former National Football League linebacker who went on to work for President Barack Obama, rubbing a pink crystal he brought with him from the campaign trail.

“In every new Congress, when the Freshmen arrive, the Members stand in awe and say, ‘Here come the fresh recruits,’ ” Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had written in a note to her caucus earlier in the week. “ ‘Who among them will lead in this body? Who among them will seek higher office? Who among them will be President of the United States?’ ”

President of the United States? These guys?

“I don’t even f---ing know where the bathrooms are,” Rose said.

This class, the largest since Watergate, may have legs, but for now they’re still trying to find their feet. Progressives from safe districts are trying to pull the party to the left; moderates from the red part of the map are trying to persuade the party to focus on the “working class” (read: white) electorate that’s on the fence about President Trump. The class is historic, but will the members be successful?

But Rose did know this: No amount of buttering up from Pelosi would change his mind about voting for her for speaker of the House. He’d told voters he would not support her and remained a firm no on that front.

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“I made two promises for things I am going to do by early January,” he said. “One is that I will be a no on Nancy Pelosi. And two is that I am going to take my wife on a honeymoon. You’re out of your damn mind if you don’t think I’m going to honor those two promises.”

It said something about Washington, Rose said, that people kept asking him about the speaker’s race. It was as if changing his mind would be par for the course here.

When it came time to draw his number, Rose smirked his way to the front of the hearing room, and grabbed the box as if he was going to make a break for it. His colleagues laughed. He picked number 37, right near the center.

When the lottery ended, members had a few hours to scope out the offices before making their picks, but Rose delegated that task to his chief and headed home. The office selection process would continue in the same Rayburn Building hearing room, but would do so without him.

And at first, it all looked to go according to plan. Jason Crow, a former Army Ranger and newly elected congressman from Colorado, was the first of the gang to select an office with the 10th pick. He choose a spot on the second floor of the Longworth Building. Abigail Spanberger, a former covert operative in the CIA and now the next representative from Virginia’s 7th District, grabbed an office down the hall from Crow.

By the time Rose’s number was called, four members of his group had picked offices on the second floor of Longworth, and two offices were still available in that area. So far, so good.

Then the plan fell apart. Sokolov, his chief of staff, announced that the Gentleman from Staten Island would be taking an office on the fifth floor of Longworth, explaining the group had decided to start a “second cluster.”

That’s how she planned to explain it to the congressman, anyway. “I’m selling it as a cluster,” she said, keeping the ins and outs of the decision-making process to herself.

Ultimately there would be three clusters spread across three floors in two separate buildings. Cisneros, the guy who won an actual lottery before he ran for office, drew a bad number and ended up in the Cannon Building, as did Elaine Luria (D-Va.), another Rose ally who drew the second-to-last number. The result put the gang in spin mode: They had done the best they could under the circumstances.

But a more experienced Hill creature would have seen this coming. The top floor of Cannon is widely considered the least-
desirable real estate in the office market. Most of the elevators in the building don’t even go up there. Couldn’t the team have anchored their office cluster there to begin with? Would it have helped their odds to wheel and deal with other members of their class?

“It is clear that when it comes to maneuvering we still have something to learn,” Rose said. “This just shows how hard it is to get something done in Washington, D.C.”

And with that, orientation came to an end.