WASHINGTON — A decade ago, Eric Swalwell was working at a Capitol Hill gym handing out towels to members of Congress. On Thursday, he was on the House floor, swearing to support and defend the Constitution as one of 14 new House members from California.
Swalwell, a Democrat from Dublin in the San Francisco Bay Area, is among a diverse group of freshmen from the Golden State who took office Thursday in the biggest turnover of the state’s delegation in 20 years. They cast their first vote — on the question of who would be House speaker — mugged for photos and enjoyed a rare festive day that masked the partisan fights that lay ahead.
They arrive at a time when Congress suffers from dismal public approval ratings and battles loom over raising the nation’s debt limit and cutting federal spending. But many of the freshmen pledged to promote a more cooperative spirit in the hyper-partisan Capitol.
“There is just a spirit among us that we’re here to solve problems and work together,” said Swalwell, who, with parents and three brothers who are Republicans, knows something about promoting bipartisanship.
The newly elected California lawmakers are an eclectic group. Among the Republicans, Doug LaMalfa of Richvale is a rice farmer and Paul Cook of Yucca Valley is a retired Marine colonel.
The Democrats include Juan Vargas of San Diego, a Harvard Law School classmate of President Obama; Mark Takano of Riverside, an Asian American teacher; and Tony Cardenas, the first Latino elected to Congress from the San Fernando Valley. Democrat Jared Huffman of San Rafael is a former all-American volleyball player.
Swalwell, at 32, is the youngest. Reps. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) and Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino), at 71, are the senior members of the freshman class.
“It’s very exciting to be here,” said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Oak Park), who joined Negrete McLeod on the Capitol steps (sans winter coats in 32 degrees) for a photo with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other Democratic congresswomen.
Though some of the newcomers have never held public office, many are hardly political neophytes. Many served as lawmakers in Sacramento.
Swalwell, a former congressional intern who was never allowed on the House floor, said that when he stepped into the chamber during a recent orientation, “that’s when it kind of set in: I was here.”
Swalwell, who worked in the gym when he lived here in his 20s, defeated Rep. Pete Stark, the former dean of the California delegation with four decades on Capitol Hill.
The former prosecutor was already throwing himself into the job, planning to cosponsor legislation to reimpose a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and work to build freshman support for it.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state’s 53-member House delegation, 38 to 15.
Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove), a physician, said that one of the messages of the election was that “the country wants us to work together.”
“I promised that one of the first things I was going to do when I got here was make a few Republican friends,” Huffman said.
One of the first bills that Bera plans to cosponsor is a bipartisan “no budget, no pay” bill, which, according to him, says that “if members of Congress don’t put together a responsible budget, they shouldn’t get paid.”
But finding consensus will be no easy task, especially in the famously fractious California delegation, which is divided over issues such as water policy, immigration and federal spending for a high-speed rail line.
Also, House Democratic and Republican campaign arms already are planning to target a number of the newly elected Californians.
LaMalfa said that the fact that so many of the newcomers know each other from Sacramento should help foster bipartisanship.
“There’s a whole bunch of new Californians who have worked together in the state Legislature under pretty trying circumstances,” he said.
To underscore the point, the former Republican state lawmaker hugged Democrat Negrete McLeod, another former state lawmaker, outside the House chamber Thursday.
Public pressure also could be a driving force for greater cooperation, LaMalfa said.
Citing public disgust over the dragged-out fight over the “fiscal cliff,” LaMalfa said, “I think the public is going to get real tired real quick over a lot more of that sort of nonsense.” On the other hand, he said, “we do have our philosophical belief systems.”
Though the defeat or retirement of a number of senior California lawmakers is likely to decrease the state’s clout in Congress, some of the freshmen snagged key committee assignments, most notably David Valadao, a Central Valley dairyman and former state legislator who was assigned to the House Appropriations Committee.
Huffman, an environmental lawyer before serving in the Legislature, won a seat on the Natural Resources Committee.
A number of lawmakers were joined by their children on the House floor for the swearing-in, as other family members watched from the gallery.
“Be good,” Huffman said when asked what he told his daughter, 12, and son, 9, before the ceremony. He brought a cellphone with video games on it “just in case.” Perhaps setting an example for the new Congress, they behaved just fine.