On Capitol Hill, name recognition is the ultimate cachet.
Just ask the anonymous members who diligently toil away only to be written off by reporters as “backbenchers,” members of the “rank and file” or the quietly maneuvering “Obscure Caucus .”
That’s likely never been a problem for the handful of standout lawmakers who joined the ranks of the Fortney “Pete” Starks and Arlen Specters of the world by adding their distinctive monikers to the congressional rolls last year.
Not that sporting a unique forename guarantees every visitor will absolutely nail it when they come a-calling.
It’s a Family Affair Rep. Markwayne Mullin is accustomed to sticking out in a crowd. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Oklahoma Republican said his name pays tribute to two dear family members — a duo who has, over time, repaid the favor in kind.
“My father was the youngest boy of eight children and he had two brothers who did not have any sons. And since I was the youngest of seven in my family, I was named after both of them: Mark and Wayne,” Mullin said of the compound ID.
The honorary mashup earned him some extra attention every year.
“In my large family, Christmas was the occasion we gave most of our gifts. I grew up on a working farm, so birthdays were just another work day,” he said. “But my uncles ... would always make me feel special and give me gifts on my birthday.”
Rep. Vance McAllister, R-La., said his name isn’t rooted in history so much as planted in his parents' hearts. According to his staff, the McAllisters initially anticipated having a girl, so they settled on the name “Vanessa” for their little one. Once they learned a man-child was on its way, they clipped Vanessa down to Vance.
According to Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, his name is quite common — at least across the pond. “It’s probably the equivalent of Charles,” he said of his Scottish heritage. King said his first name shouldn’t be totally foreign to folks on either side of the Atlantic, given that it also refers to a rather famous county where a prized breed of cattle originates.
“The legend in my family is that it goes back to the 1870s,” he said of the name's grip on his family tree. According to King, his great-grandfather had a good friend named Angus who was killed in a train wreck. He named one of his sons (King’s great-uncle) in honor of the dearly departed. The title subsequently trickled down to the senator's father, Angus S. King Sr.
“When I was a kid, they would tease me about cows,” King said of his childhood tormentors. Others took to calling him “Agnes.”
But, much like the tortured soul chronicled in the Johnny Cash tune, “A Boy Named Sue,” King feels his name helped make him the man he is today. “It was a bit of a burden,” he said of the early years, but a character-building one.
To wit, King said he went by “Gus” throughout high school and college. He switched to the proper Angus once he entered professional life, which means he can now place people within the confines of his personal history based on what they call him. “I can date when they fit into the geology of my life,” he said.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard can trace her namesake back even further; the Hawaii Democrat is named for a Hindu goddess. The names of her siblings — Bhakti, Jai, Narayan and Vrindavan — also have ties to the Eastern religion.
All Mixed Up Rep. Beto O’Rourke wasn’t born with that name, but grew into it.
“'Beto' is actually short for Roberto. That’s how it started,” Chief of Staff David Wysong said of the enduring name swap that naturally flowed from growing up in a predominantly Latino community.
According to Wysong, the Texas Democrat’s name is distinctive enough that fellow pols rarely mangle it — “I think his colleagues have all got it down,” Wysong suggested, acknowledging that it does occasionally trip up casual acquaintances.
“We mostly hear ‘Beta’ ... because they’ve never really heard of it,” Wysong said of the most common mispronunciation here on Capitol Hill.
The issue appears to be moot back home, where many constituents are intimately connected to the moniker. “We’ll meet people in El Paso that are nicknamed Beto,” Wysong said, adding that those folks always clamor for campaign T-shirts.
An aide to Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., explained that Ami is actually short for “Amerish,” the Indian-American lawmaker’s birth name. But even his nickname gives some people trouble.
“The most common mispronunciation is ‘Amy,’ like the female name. It happens all the time,” Team Bera shared, stressing, “His name is pronounced ‘Ah-mee.’”
Meanwhile, King related how one head-scratching exchange snowballed out of control — but not because of his first name.
Just as he was getting home on election night 2012, King said his cellphone rang. “Can you take a call from the president?” the authoritative voice on the other end queried. King naturally agreed, then hung there, sitting in his driveway, to chat with President Barack Obama.
When “44” finally came on the line, the conversation quickly turned to the still-fresh victory. As soon as Obama congratulated him for “carrying Richmond,” the gears started turning in King’s head. “There is a Richmond in Maine [population: 3,400], but I’d be surprised if he knew anything about it,” King stipulated. Shortly thereafter, he deduced that POTUS had some crossed wires of his own.
“It became clear that he thought he was talking to Sen.-elect Tim Kaine,” King shared. The problem was, he didn’t really know how to correct 44. He eventually broke the news about the mix-up to Obama. King said that without missing a beat, the president fired back, “Oh yeah, you did a great job too!” (Obama, whose first name is by far the most exotic of any POTUS, like King, went by another name when he was younger, "Barry.")
In Good Company Historically speaking, Congress has been a pretty homogenous place, at least first-name-wise.
Over the past 15 years, a slew of Anglo-sounding gents have wended their way through these halls, including armies of Johns (61), Roberts (49), Jameses (40), Michaels (35), Williams (32) and Thomases (31). Lady lawmakers are tougher to categorize, though Deborahs (5) and variants of “Ann” (6) — including Anne, Anna and Ann Marie — lead the pack.
It stands to reason, then, that those who break the mold would be as intrigued by unique nomenclature as the rest of us.
King said there are various colleagues whose names have captured his imagination, including:
- Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.: “I think his first name is actually Johnny, which is rather unusual,” he stated.
- Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.: “That has a poetic ring to it,” he said of the alliterative coupling.
- Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.: “A very distinguished name. And he looks like it too.”
- Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah: Also “very distinguished.”
Pop-culture-wise, King said he’s a fan of actress Honeysuckle Weeks. She plays the part of Samantha Stewart in the long-running British TV drama “Foyle’s War,” which King watches on Netflix.
Meanwhile, Mullin is fascinated by California Republican David Valadao’s backstory. “He has a unique last name with a unique history,” Mullin said, citing Valadao’s ancestry (Portuguese) and linguistic prowess (he speaks English, Spanish and Portuguese).