They are activists and advocates, combat veterans, political novices and experts. And they are headed to Washington for a crash course in being members of Congress.
More than 80 representatives-elect and four senators-elect, most of them Democrats and many who have never before held elected office, arrived in Washington this week for freshman orientation. It’s a speedy introduction to how to run a congressional office, what ethical rules they must follow and how to manage the whirlwind of life on Capitol Hill.
Along the way they’ll pick office space, vote for who will lead their parties next year, interview staff and — if they are lucky — find a place to live. They’ll also have a chance to get to know their diverse new colleagues.
The incoming freshman class includes a host of historic firsts.
Reps.-elect Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas will be the first Native American women elected to Congress. Reps.-elect Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota will be the first Muslim American women sent to Congress. Omar is also the first Somali American elected to Congress and is expected to be the first representative to wear a hijab.
A host of other firsts include Massachusetts Rep.-elect Lori Trahan, the first Portuguese American woman elected to Congress, Colorado Rep.-elect Joe Neguse, the first Eritrean American, and Florida Rep.-elect Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the first Ecuadoran American elected to Congress.
Voters sent nine new African American representatives to Congress, including Connecticut Rep.-elect Jahana Hayes, the first African American Democrat elected from New England. The eight new Latino members include Reps.-elect Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia, the first Latinas to represent Texas.
Escobar said Tuesday that immigrant communities, including those living along the southern border in places like her El Paso district, have been maligned by the president and some in Congress.
“The beauty of this historic election for me is that it is the border that is changing history during this very tumultuous time,” she said.
Reps.-elect Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne are the first women to represent Iowa in Congress. Republican Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn will be the first female senator for Tennessee. Democratic Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema will be the first female senator for Arizona.
California Rep.-elect Katie Hill is the first openly bisexual Congress member from the state, though not the first in Congress. At 31 she’ll also be the youngest member of the state delegation.
She’s not the youngest in Congress, however. That title goes to Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who is 29.
The 116th Congress will have the greatest number of women of any Congress, as well as the most black and Latino members in history.
“The diversity is one of the best things about this Congress, and it’s really in the number of women and minorities that stepped up to the plate and ran,” said Elaine Kamarck, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Hundreds of people ran for Congress this year saying they were inspired to enter politics by President Trump — either for him or against him — and the incoming class includes a striking number of people who have never before held elected office.
Some made quick work of showing their willingness to operate outside the status quo. Democrat Ocasio-Cortez joined climate change activists in a sit-in at the office of her party’s House leader, Nancy Pelosi, on the first morning of orientation, trying to push for a more powerful special committee to address climate change. (Pelosi has already agreed to the idea.)
But most freshmen kept their heads down as orientation began and focused on gathering as much information as they could.
The novices include activists such as Georgia Rep.-elect Lucy McBath, a former flight attendant who became politically active after her son was shot and killed, and scientists including South Carolina Rep.-elect Joe Cunningham, an ocean scientist and lawyer.
Kamarck said that with Democrats controlling only the House while Republicans control the rest of government, the freshmen Democrats in the House will have time to learn the ropes before they can reasonably be expected to pass legislation.
“They would be wise to sit back and figure out the institution,” she said. “Things that seem crystal clear to you when you are campaigning in a suburb 2,000 miles away suddenly become very complicated when you sit down to write legislation.”
Returning to Washington
Several Obama-era officials will enter Congress, including former Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, former senior advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services Lauren Underwood of Illinois, and former Department of Housing and Urban Development official Colin Allred of Texas. Allred is also a former linebacker for the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
The highest-ranking former official returning to Washington is Rep.-elect Donna Shalala of Florida, who was Health and Human Services secretary for President Clinton. At 77, she is also the oldest member of the freshman class.
“I’m delighted to be here. I’ve been here before, but I’ve never been an elected member of Congress, so it’s going to be an interesting experience. I’m used to testifying before them, I’m used to making policy with them, but I’ve never actually been a member myself,” Shalala said Tuesday. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
A record six female military veterans will serve next year, bringing the total number of veterans in Congress to more than 90.
The new female veterans in Congress are former Air Force Capt. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) former Navy pilot Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) and Navy veteran Elaine Luria (D-Va.).
Several male veterans will join Congress as well, including Texas Republican Dan Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL who served three tours of duty and lost his right eye in Afghanistan, and Colorado Democrat Jason Crow, an Army veteran.
Two members of the U.S. intelligence community will be sworn in as well, former CIA analyst Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and former CIA officer Abigail Spanberger of Virginia.
New California Representatives
In California, Democrats flipped at least three Republican-held districts, further shrinking the GOP share of the state’s congressional delegation.
Democrats are expected to hold at least 42 of California’s 53 House districts. Races in two Orange County districts and one Central Valley district are still too close to call, so the final split could still change.
The new members of the California delegation are Hill, a former executive of a nonprofit agency that works on homelessness, in the 25th District; real estate investor Harley Rouda in the 48th District; and environmental attorney Mike Levin in the 49th District.