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As a new Congress settles in, California's newest members prove hard to ignore

As a new Congress settles in, California's newest members prove hard to ignore
Rep. Katie Hill (D-Agua Dulce), flanked by family and media, crosses the street to the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, the first day of the new Congress. (David Butow / For The Times)

It was nearly impossible to ignore California as a new Congress was sworn in.

There was the moment House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield handed over the gavel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco on Thursday. And the spectacle of the state’s 53 House members filing into the chamber, some belting out the old jazz tune “California, Here I Come,” drawing chuckles from the crowd.

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Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, California’s seven new Democratic members, each of whom seized control of Republican-held seats in the midterms and had never previously been elected to public office, commanded attention of their own. Part of the biggest cohort in the largest freshman class in decades, they could wield outsize power for first-time members.

On Thursday morning, Rep. Katie Hill (D-Agua Dulce) was trailed by family, several news cameras and a boom microphone. Her entourage turned heads as they barreled through the packed hallways of the Longworth House Office Building, down the steps and out into the crisp January air on their way to the Capitol.

Two passersby in suits wondered aloud who she was.

“New member from California. Either Katie Hill or [Rep.] Katie Porter [D-Irvine],” one man said as she walked by.

Outside, Hill paused to put on a pearl necklace — a gift for the occasion from her mother — over her navy dress, then stopped for a photo with members of Indivisible, the progressive movement that helped boost her bid for Congress.

A few minutes later, even more cameras swarmed as she was peppered with questions about the partial government shutdown and the Democrats’ plans to act as a check on the Trump administration. The rising Democratic star, who was elected co-representative of her freshman class to the House majority, punctuated her answers with a smile.

Earlier that week, she spent time juggling media interviews and was asked to fill in for Pelosi at an afternoon tea reception when the leader was held up at the White House with shutdown talks.

But Hill’s first week in Washington was not without its growing pains. A mattress intended for her new home in the capital was twice delivered to California. Her staff hadn’t yet figured out how to unlock the desks in her new office, where the only personal touch was a tiny glass vial of gold flakes from a park close to her home near Santa Clarita, where some accounts say the first California gold was discovered.

Hill said she’s ready for the work to begin.

“I want to try to actually bring some new perspectives and restore hope for people who think our government’s broken and can’t be fixed,” she said.

Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) is surrounded by her family as she takes a ceremonial oath with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) is surrounded by her family as she takes a ceremonial oath with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. (David Butow / For The Times)

Porter, a former law professor, is one of the few single mothers of young children to serve in Congress. Her two sons and daughter, ages 12, 10 and 7, joined their mother Thursday as they navigated the throngs of new members and their families.

Porter’s staff counted off her children and lined them up as they moved from taking family portraits in Statuary Hall to the House subway nearby.

“We’ve lost a child,” Porter called out to an aide, who went back to retrieve him. “I’m only down one,” she said with a smile and a shrug to passing colleagues as they waited, issuing a stern “Hey!” when her other son began wandering ahead.

For a mother trying to balance work and family, seeing Pelosi invite all the members’ children up to the dais for her swearing-in as speaker was a highlight, Porter said.

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“Just to be in that room, to feel the energy,” she said. “I think it was a day to really remember the incredible responsibility that voters have entrusted me with.”

Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) walks in the tunnels beneath the Capitol building with his wife, Chrissy, and their two children.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) walks in the tunnels beneath the Capitol building with his wife, Chrissy, and their two children. (David Butow / For The Times)

Rep. Mike Levin (D-San Juan Capistrano) also had his two young children in tow on the House floor Thursday. He intends to fly back to California every weekend to spend time with his family and keep a rigorous schedule of once-a-month town hall meetings in his district, the first of which is planned for the end of January.

Levin, who succeeded longtime Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista after he announced his retirement last year, has criticized his predecessor for holding few town halls with constituents. His campaign promises included a push for greater transparency and accessibility.

“We’re going to do everything we can to engage with those who are traditionally not interested in politics,” Levin told a gathering of supporters, many of whom had been regulars at the weekly protests outside Issa’s office for more than a year and traveled to Washington to see Levin sworn in.

“I was sent here by all of you and for all of you to get the people’s business done,” he said. “So we need to tell Donald Trump where he can put his wall.”

Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda), with aide Annie Campbell and his twin sons Alexander, second from left, and Christopher, walk to the swearing-in ceremony for House members.
Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda), with aide Annie Campbell and his twin sons Alexander, second from left, and Christopher, walk to the swearing-in ceremony for House members. (David Butow / For The Times)

At an open house that day, Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Yorba Linda) mingled with more than a dozen family members and supporters in his office, its walls still bare. His parents and in-laws posed for photos and soaked in the excitement as Cisneros’ 4-year-old twins, Christopher and Alexander, dressed in suits and ties, bounced around the room.

Despite the task ahead, Cisneros joked that he was most anxious that day about his boys rushing up to the dais uninvited.

“I’m not nervous about the job or what we have to do,” he said. “We kind of came here with an agenda and what we want to focus on … and we’ll just go from there trying to make our mark.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Josh Harder (D-Turlock), who ousted Republican incumbent Jeff Denham in the Central Valley, reflected on the sheer number of new members who had never run for or won office before.

“They’re in Congress because they want to make a difference in their communities and that’s why they ran, that’s why I ran,” Harder said in a Facebook Live video late Thursday, recapping his first day on the job. “I think we have people in office for the right reasons, and I’m really optimistic for what that means.”

Eager to get started, Harder expressed frustration with the pace of change, a sentiment many of his classmates seem to share.

A vote on any given issue, he said, took four or five time-consuming procedural votes.

“We have so many problems and issues that we campaigned on, and if it takes us five hours or a day just to get one done, I feel like we could be doing things a little bit better.”

His wife, Pam, sat on the couch beside him. “Are you going to fix that, Josh?”

He said he’d do what he can.

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“I’m certainly rarin’,” Harder replied. “Like, let’s move on, let’s get going.”

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