Class Presidents’ Sophomore Jinx

Recent House Freshman Leaders Don’t Stay Long

Posted November 19, 2004 at 6:48pm

Call it coincidence, or call it the curse of the brown nosers.

Either way, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) represents an increasingly rare breed in Congress these days: freshman class presidents.

The rate of return for those starry-eyed Congressional frosh — many of whom campaign for the responsibility to head the new class with visions of plum leadership posts and future Appropriations seats dancing in their heads — hasn’t been much of a selling point lately.

In the past four years eight Members have held the title of freshman class president at one time or another. Only three of them will be returning to the 109th Congress.

“Really? That’s a bad omen,” Schiff said, seemingly concerned when informed of his unique status last week.

He later deadpanned: “Basically, it is the kiss of death.”

Schiff, along with Reps. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) and Susan Davis (D-Calif.), were three of the four presidents elected by the Democratic freshman class of 2000. They are also the only presidents from the last two freshmen classes who are coming back.

Rep. Brad Carson (D-Okla.), who also served a six-month stint as president of the 2000 class, lost a Senate bid this year.

Rep. Ed Schrock (R-Va.), who led the GOP freshman class in 2000, abruptly announced his retirement this year amid never-confirmed allegations that he used a phone service to solicit gay sex.

But their successors in the 2002 class fared even worse — none of them will be back next year for one reason or another.

Rep. Max Burns (Ga.) was one of two GOP incumbents to lose on Nov. 2, after he was heavily targeted in his Democratic-leaning seat.

Newly elected Democrats in 2002 chose incoming freshmen Denise Majette (Ga.) and Frank Ballance (N.C.) to share the presidential duties.

A year and a half later, Majette stunned her colleagues by announcing a seemingly quixotic bid for Senate. She lost badly, 58 percent to 39 percent.

Ballance, who campaigned for the job by sending a letter to each of his incoming colleagues, resigned his seat in June citing health problems. Ballance pleaded guilty earlier this month in federal court to several charges, including money laundering.

In town for new Member orientation last week, the GOP freshmen elected Rep.-elect Bobby Jindal (La.) to lead their class.

Jindal, 33, campaigned for the job and he said he is excited about the opportunity to help the class lay a foundation for future service.

“Well, we certainly hope to break that cycle,” said Jindal, only the second Indian American ever elected to Congress. He won the seat of now-Sen.-elect David Vitter (R) with 78 percent of the vote.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) even issued a statement congratulating Jindal on his ascension to the post.

“With parents from Punjab, India, Bobby’s story is a real American Dream come true,” Hastert said. “I look forward to working with our new freshman class president who will be a great asset to our team.”

The Democratic freshmen are expected to formally elect their class leaders in January. Reps.-elect Melissa Bean (Ill.) and Henry Cuellar (Texas) are the leading contenders, and their colleagues may just allow them to split the job.

Bean spokesman Brian Herman stressed that his boss is not actively campaigning for the job, although she wouldn’t turn the opportunity down.

“Some of the other Members approached her and suggested that she do it,” Herman said.

Cuellar, meanwhile, appears to be actively campaigning for the job.

“We’ve got the votes locked,” Cuellar spokesman Colin Strother said Friday, explaining that his boss has gotten vote commitments from the majority of his freshman colleagues.

But while Jindal’s re-election in 2006 seems certain, both Bean and Cuellar are on shakier ground.

Bean defeated 17-term Rep. Phil Crane (R) but, like Burns, she is considered a political mismatch for the GOP-leaning district and is expected to face a tough re-election in two years.

Cuellar, meanwhile, is also expected to face a fight for a second term. In an April primary, Cuellar narrowly defeated Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) and Rodriguez has pledged to run again in 2006.

Despite the recent survival rate, make no mistake that there are many freshman president success stories still roaming the halls of the Capitol.

Sen.-elect Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) recalled that his service as president of the 1998 freshman class in the House opened plenty of doors for him. He said people back home still sometimes boast in introductions that he was the guy who got elected class president.

“It puts you at the leadership table many times,” DeMint said as he walked through the Rotunda on his way to one of his last votes in the House last week. “I was invited with some of the initial dinners with the new Speaker at the time, Dennis Hastert. It gave me a chance right away to get more involved than I might have.”

Both Democrats and Republicans have used the freshman leadership job as a springboard to bigger things.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a 1992 freshman class co-president, went on to become chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and last week he was re-elected as Democratic Caucus vice-chairman.

“To be here 10 years and to be able to boast that I’d been in leadership for five years, I think that was helpful,” Clyburn said. “If for no other reason, it gives you something to put on your resume.”

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) also once served as a class president, splitting the duty of heading the 1992 class with Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.).

Still, Pryce is somewhat of an anomaly.

For many Republicans, a much better launching pad for leadership and “A” committee assignments has been the job of freshman class representative to the GOP Steering Committee.

“The sooner you can get in the whip organization it seems, the better off you are,” one GOP leadership aide noted.

The freshmen who held that position in 1998 and 2000, Reps. John Sweeney (N.Y.) and John Culberson (Texas), later gained prized seats on the Appropriations panel. Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) was the liaison in this Congress.

In 1996, then-incoming Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) expressed an interest in serving as class president. He was elected Steering Committee rep instead, setting himself on course to later become Majority Whip.

In researching this story, Roll Call was unable to unearth an official list of former freshman class presidents. The job — the primary duties of which are to set class meetings and to advocate for committee assignments on behalf of freshman Members — is largely defined by the individuals who hold it.

Clay, one of the 2000 class presidents, recalls that his class continued to meet into their sophomore year.

“It’s good camaraderie,” he said.

Any words of wisdom for the incoming leaders?

“My advice to them is to take care of their classmates as far as committee assignments,” Clay said, noting his ability to help his classmates get their preferred assignments was aided by his close ties to then-Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

As best we can tell, only one former freshman class president has run for president in the past two decades. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) presided over the 1982 class of GOP House freshmen, a job that he did not tout when he ran for White House in 2000.

Other former class presidents have not gone on to such glory.

Just three years after being elected in 1986, GOP freshman class President Donald “Buz” Lukens (R-Ohio) was found guilty of a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl. Despite that conviction, Lukens sought re-election in 1990 but was defeated by Rep. John Boehner in the Republican primary. In October 1990, Lukens resigned the seat after the House ethics committee began an investigation into allegations he had fondled an elevator operator in the Capitol.

Lukens’ problems did not end there, however, and in 1996 he was convicted of accepting a bribe during his final year in office. He eventually served two and a half years in jail for the crime.

He is not the only freshman class president to serve hard time.

Less than a year after losing his 1992 re-election bid, Rep. Albert Bustamante (D-Texas) of the class of ’84 was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for racketeering and accepting illegal gratuities. Among his transgressions was taking a $35,000 bribe to help a food service company win a contract with a military base in his district. In 2000, Bustamante unsuccessfully lobbied his former colleagues for a presidential pardon.

As for how the latest Texan to likely wield the freshman gavel feels about the recent turnover rate, Cuellar’s spokesman said his boss isn’t too superstitious.

“We’re not worried about any kind of freshman class curse or anything like that,” Strother said. “I’m sure it’s just a coincidence.”