U.S. politics isn’t all bad; freshman show potential

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, November 25, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Ready for some good news from Election 2000? As the morass in the Florida presidential recount grows deeper and the reputation of American politics is further tarnished, the quality of people coming into government continues to impress.

Especially is that true of the House of Representatives, the point of entry to federal office for most of the men and women who will be important players in future years. The House freshman class looks smart and balanced — just what the capital city needs in this time of power struggles and rancid partisanship.

It’s not a big class by historical standards — 41 of them, pending a couple of possible recounts, 28 Republicans and 13 Democrats. I’ve met only eight of them during the course of the past campaign, but I was impressed by the biographies of the class and the anecdotes I’ve heard from other members of Congress and campaign officials.

The most striking thing about them is the depth of their governmental experience. These are not, for the most part, rookies. The youngest member of the freshman class, Florida Republican Adam Putnam, is only 26. But he has four years of experience in the state House of Representatives, starting there only two years after graduating from the University of Florida.

As a group, they are older than most previous House beginners. Only 13 of them are in their 30s, while 12 are past 50. Those in their 40s are the largest cohort, numbering 15.

More important, 32 of the 41 have had substantial experience in government, mainly, like Putnam, in the legislatures of their states. Three have held statewide office and most have served at one time or another in local government. One of Putnam’s new colleagues, Ander Crenshaw, was the first Republican president of the Florida Senate. Another, California Democrat Hilda Solis, was the first Latino woman elected to the California Senate.

Other women in the group also have impressive credentials. West Virginia’s Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican and the daughter of a former governor, won laurels in the Democratic-dominated state House of Representatives for her successful four-year fight to tax smokeless tobacco. Another Republican, Pennsylvania’s Melissa Hart, was the chairman of the state Senate finance committee, handling Gov. Tom Ridge’s major tax reform measures.

Jim Matheson, who gave the Democrats a rare victory in Utah, is also the son of a former governor. More to the point, his business career has focused on the intersection of energy production and the environment — a critical policy area.

Many of the other new members bring useful and unusual perspectives to Congress. Mike Ross, an Arkansas Democrat, is not only a 10-year veteran of the state Senate but a specialist on children’s and youths’ programs who once headed a commission on preventing teen-age suicide. Mike Honda, a California Democrat and former grade school principal, is a legislative veteran who, as a youth during World War II, was interned in a camp for Japanese-Americans.

Robert Simmons, a Connecticut Republican, is a CIA alumnus who was staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee before he became a legislator in Hartford. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, is a Navy Reserve officer who has worked for international finance agencies and has served as counsel to the House International Relations Committee.

And there are other ways in which the new members will broaden the outlook of the House. Jim Langevin, a newly elected Rhode Island Democrat, was a 16-year-old Boy Scout police cadet when he was accidentally shot during a training session for would-be law enforcement officers. Now 36, Langevin is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair.

Even the businessmen in the group are out of the ordinary. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, made a fortune with his car alarm firm, and became head of the Consumer Electronics Association. Felix Grucci, a New York Republican, went straight from high school into the family fireworks business and helped make it an international success story.

And the freshmen look brainy. Many of them are graduates of elite public and private universities. Two of the Republicans, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Indiana’s Mike Pence, have run conservative think tanks. And freshman Oklahoma Democrat Brad Carson is not just a Rhodes scholar and former White House fellow but a member of the Cherokee Nation.

All this, and yet the most famous member of the class is the former coach of the national championship University of Nebraska football teams, Tom Osborne, starting a new career as a House Republican at age 63.

Who says American politics no longer attracts the talented?

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