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Diversity on stark display as House’s incoming freshmen gather in Washington

A photo of the front of a flier that circulated on Capitol Hill shows some of the members-elect of the 116th Congress, on Tuesday.
A photo of the front of a flier that circulated on Capitol Hill shows some of the members-elect of the 116th Congress, on Tuesday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The most diverse House freshman class in history convened Tuesday for the first time since last week’s elections.

But of the two political parties’ freshman gatherings, only one looked something like the country as a whole.

The incoming lawmakers — memorialized in a flier that circulated on Capitol Hill — are overwhelmingly white on the Republican side, with only one woman, while women and people of color are a majority of the newcomers on the Democratic side.

As the incoming members gathered at a hotel in Southeast Washington, several Democrats said they hoped that the diversity of their numbers would inform the party’s approach to policy.

“It brings a different perspective to the table,” said Rep.-elect Kendra Horn (Okla.), the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from her state, adding: “I’m very excited to be part of this new class that looks a lot more like our communities.”

Here's where the 2018 midterm election saw historic gains on both state and national levels. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

The freshmen were projected ahead of the election to be younger, more female and more racially diverse, the embodiment of a coalition that helped Barack Obama win the White House in 2008. The new members include several firsts for Congress — the first Muslim women, the first Native American women and the first African American women from several states.

The diversity underscored a looming debate for Democrats ahead of 2020, when the party will choose its candidate to challenge President Trump. A large group of up-and-coming Democrats, including several women and minorities, have shown interest in presidential bids. Choosing a white man as the Democratic nominee would disappoint some of the party faithful.

The next Congress has already hit a long list of milestones. More than 100 women have been elected to the House, with 29-year-old Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) the youngest women to enter Congress. Many lawmakers of Latino or Asian heritage were elected or won fresh terms.

The Democratic gains were illustrated on the cover of the Nov. 19 issue of the New Yorker magazine, which depicted a room full of white men in outline as new political talents — drawn with detail in color — entered through the door.

Dave Wasserman, the House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, recently calculated that the percentage of white men as a share of House Democrats is “set to decline from 41 percent to 38 percent as a result of the 2018 election.”

“Meanwhile, the percentage of white men as a share of House Republicans is on track to rise from 86 percent to 90 percent,” he tweeted Sunday.

The story for House Republicans is different, with the party losing several female members to retirement or higher office, including Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.), Lynn Jenkins (Kan.) and Gov.-elect Kristi L. Noem (S.D.).

The fate of two Republican women of color was uncertain late Tuesday, as Rep. Mia Love (Utah) trailed Democrat Ben McAdams in her suburban Salt Lake City district and Republican Young Kim, running for the House in Orange County, Calif., held a lead of roughly 2,000 votes over Democrat Gil Cisneros.

New members spent part of Tuesday in orientation, a multiday process that will teach them to find their way around Capitol Hill, run a congressional office and handle constituent casework.

Democrats, some seemingly overwhelmed by the crush of media attention, described wide-ranging policy priorities they hoped the party will focus on next year.

“Helping children and families, working on voting rights issues, working on criminal justice issues,” said Rep.-elect Mary Gay Scanlon (Pa.).

“Climate change and renewable energy,” said Rep.-elect Deb Haaland (N.M.), who is one of the first Native American women elected to Congress.

“Health care and education,” Oklahoma’s Horn said.

Other newly elected Democratic members will arrive in Congress already associated with certain policies.

Rep.-elect Lucy McBath (Ga.), a gun-control activist whose son was fatally shot six years ago, flipped a longtime Republican congressional seat outside Atlanta last week.

The younger bent of the incoming class was also on display, as Rep.-elect Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) arrived at the hotel carrying his infant son.

Ocasio-Cortez drew attention for joining a protest in the office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over climate change.

“Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen,” she said.

More than a hundred activists with the Sunrise Movement had streamed into Pelosi’s office on Tuesday morning, delivering letters demanding that Pelosi commit to a Marshall Plan-size economic blueprint that would transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

It was not enough, they said, to simply reestablish the select committee on climate change. Many protesters wore shirts that read “12 years,” a reference to estimates that by 2030, it will be impossible to wind back the effects of climate change.

“Pelosi’s plan on climate change is the equivalent of bringing a squirt gun to a raging drought-induced wildfire killing Americans right now,” said Varshini Prakash, the Sunrise Movement’s co-founder.

Ocasio-Cortez played down her own involvement.

“This is not about me. This is not about the dynamics of any personalities,” she told reporters. “This is about uplifting the voice, and the message, of the fact that we need a green New Deal.”

Pelosi followed with a statement supporting the protesters but declining to specifically address their key demand.

“I have recommended to my House Democratic colleagues that we reinstate the select committee to address the climate crisis,” Pelosi stated. “House Democrats ran on and won on our bold campaign for a $1 trillion investment in our infrastructure that will make our communities more resilient to the climate crisis, while creating 16 million new good-paying jobs across the country.”

Haaland, who described addressing climate change as her key priority, said she also wanted to focus on health care and the issue of missing and slain indigenous women.

She left a gaggle of reporters to meet Rep.-elect Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who is also Native American, for coffee.

“We need to make Americans’ lives better,” she said.

David Weigel contributed to this report.

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