The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On their third day at work, congressional freshmen went through disorientation

Rep. Nikema Williams explores the U.S. Capitol during a December visit to her new workplace. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

It was her third full day of being a member of Congress and Nikema Williams, who was taking over the Georgia seat held by the late Rep. John Lewis, had slept maybe two hours the night before. She’d celebrated Raphael Warnock’s win in the Georgia runoff elections that would determine control of the Senate, and was still waiting to see if the massive voter mobilization effort she’d helped organize would bring a runoff win for Jon Ossoff as well.

Williams was nervous. Wednesday would be her first moment in the spotlight as a sworn-in congresswoman: Republicans were planning to challenge the certification of Joe Biden’s win in Georgia, and as one of Georgia’s electors, Williams would be responsible for standing up for the outcome. She knew that the resistance to accepting Democratic victories in Georgia — especially those driven by Black voter turnout — was part of a long racist history of voter suppression in the South, and she planned to say so in her speech.

A pro-Trump rally was gathering outside her new office. Her husband insisted on driving her to work, even though she could easily walk from her barely furnished new apartment. Given her skin color and her politics, Williams, 42, worried she might be a target.

That afternoon, with things looking good for Ossoff in Georgia, another freshman, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), was going to bring champagne, and Williams and her staff were looking for cups. Then a text alert came in saying that their building was on lockdown. Williams turned on the TV and saw people running through the Capitol Rotunda flying the Confederate flag. “How that feels as a Black woman from the South, I don’t think I can ever really explain it to anyone,” she says.

Being in a new job is exciting and unsettling, no matter the workplace. There’s a slew of people whose names you have to remember; in the case of House members, there are 60 freshmen and 435 members total, each with their own staffs ­­— many of whom may not know the building or the office politics any better than their bosses do. It might take weeks before you know how to find the supply closet. Maybe you’ll go hungry one day because you don’t know where to get lunch and can’t work the vending machine. Chances are you fell asleep a little during orientation and missed something important.

“I’m still figuring out the ladies’ room, for God’s sake,” says Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who was in her office when the siege happened. Newman and Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who voted to certify Biden’s win, both say they’re constantly getting lost in the Capitol’s maze of underground tunnels.

Normally this kind of first-week disorientation is no big deal — except that when avoiding a violent mob, it might help if you’ve been in the building longer than three days and know it a little better than the people hunting you down. And such a disturbing attack might forge a bond among freshman members of Congress — except that many Democrats believe some of their new Republican colleagues were partly responsible for inciting it.

And now, they all have to go back to the office with one another.

Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who days before had been sworn in as the first openly gay Black member of Congress, was on the House floor with about 200 other members when the Capitol Police rushed into the chamber and began locking doors.

He'd been elected by his fellow Democratic freshmen to be their representative in discussions with the party's leadership. That meant he was right in the center of the action as police instructed everyone to pull out the "escape hoods" under their chairs to protect them from tear gas and be prepared to hit the ground if there were gunshots.

As they hunkered down in a secure location, Jones found himself next to Rep. Colin Allred (D-Tex.). "I remember Colin Allred saying to me, 'Oh, is this your first coup?' "

Jones relays this anecdote with a laugh, but the situation was perilous — for several reasons. There was the mob, obviously. And then there were his Republican colleagues who had refused to wear masks. He spent three hours locked in a room with over 100 GOP representatives, many barefaced. "So at some point I became more fearful of getting covid from my Republican colleagues than I was of experiencing bodily harm by the terrorists." (Three Democratic lawmakers, Pramila Jayapal [Wash.], Bonnie Watson Coleman [N.J.] and Brad Schneider [Ill.], have since been diagnosed with the coronavirus.)

Jones also immediately started telling everyone who cared to listen that they needed to impeach President Trump.

Fellow freshman Ronny Jackson (R-Tex.), who had served as President Trump's chief medical adviser and is known for his glowing 2018 review of the president's health and "incredibly good genes," was trapped in that room, too.

Jackson was at the back of the chamber along with three other freshmen Republicans from Texas — Troy Nehls, Pat Fallon and Tony Gonzales — thinking he'd be spending the day learning about the legislative process. He'd been excited just to participate in the "routine stuff" of voting and debate that he's sure is boring to senior House members. He's so new, he says, that he'll often strike up conversations with colleagues without realizing they're Democrats. And he spends a lot of time asking the floor staff to explain to him how "yes" and "no" votes work, "because sometimes you think the answer would be a 'yes,' but the 'yes' answer is a 'no' vote," he says. "It gets confusing."

[The Capitol mob desecrated a historical workplace — and left behind some disturbing artifacts]

Because there aren't TVs on the House floor and information from the outside was minimal, Jackson says no one in there knew the makeup of the mob or whether they were armed. They had just two or three plainclothes police and one uniformed officer in there with them, weapons drawn, guarding the back door that stood between the chamber and the mob. There was no clear exit, no way out, Jackson says. They could hear the boom of tear gas being dropped and then loud bangs on the door. Then the door began buckling and swaying.

"It was obvious that it was more than one person out there and they were throwing themselves or something into the door trying to bust the door open," says Jackson.

He and his fellow Texas freshmen, all of whom had military or law-enforcement backgrounds, "started dragging the biggest heaviest furniture we could find" to barricade the door. Someone told members to take off their congressional pins so they would be less identifiable. Fallon yelled out for everyone to take off their ties so the mob couldn't use them to choke them. The Texans started breaking off legs of furniture to use as makeshift weapons.

"Scared isn't the right word, but you could feel things escalate," says Gonzales, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "It was like the barbarians at the gate." Suddenly, there were loud pops that Gonzales says sounded just like a small firearm going off and glass started flying out of the windows. Police officers yelled "shots fired!" And at that point decided they had to evacuate everyone out through the Speaker's Lobby, which wasn't secured.

When they reached a secure location, Jackson called his wife and all three of his kids. He wanted to tell them he was okay — and also to make sure he talked to them one last time, he says, "just in case that wasn't the end of it, in case there were people who came into where we had been relocated and shot me or whatever."

The failed insurrection did nothing to move Jackson off his political position that Trump had been cheated. Once the invaders had been expelled, the Texas freshman went back to the chamber and voted against certifying the electoral college results for Arizona and Pennsylvania. Of the four Texas Republican freshmen who were trapped in that chamber and stood their ground with the police, only one, Gonzales, voted to certify Joe Biden's win.

Jackson condemned the "domestic terrorists" who'd stormed the Capitol, but he doesn't blame President Trump or his party for spreading falsehoods about the election being rigged. "My thinking was that those two things were unrelated," he says, adding that he believes — "honestly" — that the way elections in certain states were conducted was unconstitutional.

"I think that President Trump has done a good job during his term," he says. "I was proud to be a part of the Trump administration."

The riot, and how individuals reacted to it, set a tone for the new Congress at a time when everyone is already on edge. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a freshman Republican from Colorado who has spoken approvingly of QAnon, angered her Democratic colleagues by posting during the raid that "The Speaker has been removed from the chambers." Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) highlighted Boebert's lack of discretion, writing: "We were specifically instructed by those protecting us not to tell anyone, including our family, where exactly we were, for reasons that remain obvious."

Meanwhile, the tension over mask-wearing has gotten only more intense as Democratic lawmakers have revealed their covid-19 diagnoses.

"I want people to understand that it's difficult to think people want to work with you in good faith and in a bipartisan way when most of the members of that party in Congress have put your life in great peril," says Jones.

Freshman Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), a single mother who worked for Trump's 2016 campaign, announced nearly a week before Jan. 6 that she was bucking her party and voting to certify the election. Someone on Facebook threatened to shoot her. Tuesday night before the vote, as Trump supporters rolled into town, she says she was "accosted in public on H Street, all of it politically driven." The imminent Trump rally disturbed her so much that she booked her two kids, 11 and 14, along with her mother and sister, on the first plane back home Monday morning after her Jan. 3 swearing-in.

During the riot Wednesday, Mace got caught in an unfamiliar building and then the tunnels while trying to reach her office building, which was evacuated and resettled twice because of bomb threats, and spent the rest of the day locked in a room with the shades drawn, praying that no one with a gun found her and her staff. That night, after voting for certification, she slept in her office, fearing Trump supporters might recognize her at the hotel where she was staying.

"Rhetoric has real consequences," she says. "People's lives were put at risk and put in danger and people died." Nevertheless, Mace opposes impeaching the president again — another point of tension that has obscured any sense of solidarity in the House following the attack. As for protecting herself, she had already applied for a concealed-carry license in Washington. (Members who are licensed to carry concealed firearms in D.C. may do so on the Capitol grounds, though not in the House or Senate chambers.) She'd been excited for her kids to see a presidential inauguration — "I don't care whether it's Republican or Democrat" — but no longer feels safe having them in the city.

The freshmen took different lessons from what the whole thing meant and how it would guide them as they found their feet in Congress. Jackson and Mace, though split on certifying Biden, agreed that a new, urgent legislative priority should be working in a bipartisan way to create federal election standards so, Mace says, "millions of people don't believe there was election fraud."

For Black freshmen Democrats, who saw the Capitol stormed with the Confederate flag and Nazi paraphernalia, with some members of the Capitol Police under investigation for possibly being sympathetic to the rioters, there seems to have been a breach of trust — and a need for accountability.

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), who rose to prominence as a Black Lives Matter activist, started drafting her first act of legislation while barricaded in her office with her chief of staff: It's a resolution to set up an ethics board to sanction, and possibly expel members of Congress who are found to have "engaged in insurrection or rebellion." "We could not finish out that day without making sure that that happened," she says.

Meanwhile, her Democratic colleague, Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a Black former middle school principal from the Bronx, says he is drafting legislation calling for a commission to examine the presence of white supremacists in the Capitol Police Department. He's moved up his plans to call for reparations for African Americans. And he plans to demand better protection for the essential workers at the Capitol, like custodians, who he was horrified to learn didn't have safe places to hide or a secure way to get home, like members did. "They were left on their own," he says, "and who knows if one of these crazy people would have seen someone Black or Brown walking down the street and just shoot him in the head. I mean, these things happen all the time."

Still, Bowman says he wasn't too fazed by the riots; he was far from the action. In his previous job, "Keeping hundreds of kids safe every single day was my number one job description," he said in an interview several days after the riot. "When one kid goes missing and you have to look for them for hours outside of the school, that was more terrifying to me than what I had to deal with the other day."

Williams, the new representative from Georgia, who is also the newly elected president of the Democratic caucus's freshman class, never did get to drink champagne with her staff. Instead, they endured a chaotic day made even more stressful by the fact that they were all scarcely familiar with routine procedures, let alone emergency ones. When they were told to go to their safe location, Williams realized they hadn't been told where their safe location was. She found out from a senior member that information was being disseminated through walkie-talkies. "We're like, 'What walkie-talkies?' " she says. "I didn't even know that there were walkie-talkies that we were supposed to have until one of my staffers came from a senior member's office and asked if we had them."

Finally, about 4 a.m. (her second consecutive almost-all-nighter), she arrived home, where her 5-year-old son was sleeping and her husband was waiting up. She sat down and cried.

"I just kept thinking about how much at risk my life was in that moment and how I came here to serve my people, and how as a Black woman in this country, there's really is no safe space for me," she says. "Even as a member of Congress in a building that I thought would be one of the safest buildings in the world, I still was not safe." She added, "now I don't know who I can trust."

The next day, her fourth in the new job, she went back to the office and began looking into hiring her own security guards.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that Nikema Williams was the first Black woman to represent Georgia in Congress. She was the first Black woman to be chair of the Georgia Democratic Party.