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Freshman lawmaker from Inland Empire gets crash course on Congress

Incoming Rep. Norma J. Torres gets a crash course on Congress, a rite of passage for all new lawmakers

The newly elected member of Congress arrived in the nation's capital after a red-eye flight from LAX in a government-assigned cheap seat next to the bathroom.

Sleep-deprived, Norma J. Torres busied herself during the taxi ride downtown by answering emails and texts on her phone, oblivious to the iconic Washington monuments whizzing past the window.

Minutes later, the Inland Empire politician — a Democrat elected to represent Southern California's 35th District — arrived at the Capitol Hill Hotel with dozens of other excited, angst-filled lawmakers-to-be for a Washington rite of passage: new member orientation for the House of Representatives.

It's an eight-day crash-course in Congress designed to turn candidates into legislators and teach newbies how to survive and thrive.

There are classes on ethics and parliamentary procedure. Veteran lawmakers lecture about common mistakes, such as trying to be an expert on every issue instead of picking a specialty. Technical consultants offer advice for setting up offices, hiring staff and ensuring cyber security.

There's even a freshman class photo on the Capitol steps and field trips to the House floor, underground tunnel and Old Supreme Court Chamber.

"It's like your first day of high school," said Torres, a former 911 emergency dispatcher who rose to become mayor of Pomona and then a California state senator. "But worse. Because the responsibility that comes with this job is huge."

Each morning, Torres and the other 60-odd new members assembled last month in the cavernous basement auditorium of the Capitol Visitor Center, usually breaking for lunch along party lines into a gaggle of schmoozing, nervous banter and congratulatory small talk. At night, party leaders wined and dined them at cocktail receptions and dinners.

Graduation day culminated with the hotly anticipated office lottery, which determined whether new members secured a prized view of the National Mall or were stuck with a window overlooking power-plant smokestacks — or worse, no window at all.

Torres struggled at first with the onslaught of decisions big and small:

Blackberry or iPhone? Verizon or AT&T? She would need to hire staff, find a place to live in Washington's pricey real estate market, and vie to win first choices for House committee seat assignments. Before she knew it, she had created about six new passwords that she hoped she would remember.

Though Torres is a veteran lawmaker in California, she was unsure of the ways of Washington. At one point, a simple offer of coffee became an ethical struggle: Could she accept a free cup of joe? Ethics class wasn't until the next day.

"It's like drinking water from a fire hose," she said, catching her breath later at a nearby French cafe outside. "And I haven't been sworn in yet. How does that happen?"

New member orientation is always an awkward time on Capitol Hill, when the churn of hope and defeat is on full display. Wide-eyed newcomers causally roam the halls, hunting out the best office spaces to occupy as some outgoing lawmakers are nudged to basement quarters.

In between party leadership meetings and committee assignments, new members can visit the makeshift interior design center to pick out office drapes and carpets, available in stately colors like royal blue, ruby red or glittery gold. Government vendors also are on hand, hawking everything a lawmaker might need — including printed posters to use as props during floor speeches and engraved nameplates for the office door.

Torres ended up keeping the gold drapes and blue carpet left by the previous occupant, but opted for a fresh coat of light gray paint.

Amid the crush of ambitious new arrivals, she was not easily noticed. Without an entourage or family members, Torres traveled with just a trusted aide. Twice, they skipped the parties in favor of a quiet dinner. Asked about her early networking efforts, she shrugged: "No best-ies."

Few of the other newly elected members seemed to recognize her place in history. An immigrant who came to the U.S. as a child from Central America, Torres is now the nation's highest-ranking Guatemalan American elected official and a rising star in the eyes of Latino voters and Spanish-language media. "This is a big deal for them,'' she said. "It's a big deal for me."

For Torres, one of the highlights of orientation came during the VIP tour inside the vast chamber for the House of Representatives, when she said the clarity of her purpose came into view.

"It was amazing," she said. "Just to think about: This was what I was elected for. I'm going to have a voice here." But then she noticed something else. "They don't have desks – just chairs," she said. "There isn't a chair with your name on it."

She frowned at the prospect of having to scramble each day, like a student in a high school cafeteria, to find a place to sit.

After back-to-back meetings on her first day, Torres joined other Democrats for a formal dinner being hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) under the soaring dome of the Capitol.

To her delight, she was seated at the head table with Pelosi, to whom she had spoken before but never met. Pelosi would later call her an energetic legislator and champion for immigrant children. "I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm at Table 1,' " she said. "I wish my husband would have been there."

In Washington, proximity to power carries a certain currency.

And the jockeying to be as close to the Capitol as possible is intense. Because of a lottery system, senior lawmakers scooped up the biggest, fanciest offices closest to the dome. Freshmen picked last.

A nervous tension filled the stuffy hearing room as an overhead projector showed which offices were still available. As the lottery numbers were called, the rooms disappeared one by one. Torres, who was to pick 37th out of 57, watched all her choices get snapped up. She scurried to a computer in the back of the room to check out floor plans of remaining spaces.

Site unseen, she picked Room 516 of the Cannon House Office Building.

A groan erupted from the others in the room, a sign that Room 516 was one of the last coveted choices. She, her aide and her newly hired chief of staff walked over to take a look. Her eyes brightened. Windows that opened. "We hit the jackpot," Torres said.

lisa.mascaro@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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