Which Freshmen Show Early Signs of Stardom?

Posted January 20, 2005 at 1:04pm

Political star power: It’s an elusive quality that many aspire to but few attain.

Ex-Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who came within an inch of becoming Speaker, says that recognizing political stardom is akin to how the late Justice Potter Stewart referred to pornography. “If a person has it, you know it,” said Livingston.

Be that as it may, the freshman Members who arrived this month exuding the look of stardom tend to exhibit a few shared characteristics. Sometimes it’s a personal history worthy of Horatio Alger; other times it’s professional renown, exceptional political and policy know-how, famous ancestry, or good old telegenic charm.

Incoming Senators, by default, generally have an easier time qualifying for star status, due to the Senate’s more limited membership and the national media attention given to many Senate races.

“Once they get into the Senate, most of them will become national stars,” said Don Ritchie, associate Senate historian. “Today, every Senator is influential and every Senator is expected to speak on every issue.”

In the House, however, becoming a star is a dicier challenge. Not only does a freshman have to compete with 434 other politicians for the limelight, but he or she also has a much smaller constituency to serve as a launching pad as well as a longer time to wait before winning a seat on a major committee.

Of course, early star power is no guarantee of future success. In the House, several recent freshman class presidents have gone on to less than stellar careers.

Indeed, none of the 2002 class presidents will be back this year, having either resigned or lost subsequent bids for the House or Senate. One of them, Rep. Frank Ballance (D-N.C.), pleaded guilty late last year in federal court to several charges, including money laundering.

Other freshmen who stay within the straight and narrow still wind up having careers that never seem to fulfill their initial promise. Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), who won national acclaim by toppling then-Speaker Tom Foley (D), served in the House until he ran for Senate (and lost) last year — but he “all but disappeared once he got here,” said one Republican leadership aide.

Most observers agree that the lightning rise of sophomore Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) — a former Clinton administration official who this month was appointed chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — is unusual among recent freshmen, surpassing even the ascent of fellow phenoms Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), who each took the reins of the National Republican Congressional Committee at the start of their fourth terms in the House.

But even without reaching Emanuel-like heights, there’s no denying that an aura of “buzz” greatly enhances the ability of lowly first-termers to open doors and navigate the corridors of power.

For freshmen, “I think [star power] does equate clout,” said a House Democratic strategist. “There’s not much else going for you.”

With that in mind, Roll Call consulted Congressional insiders to take their pulse on which freshmen are already turning heads in these early days of the 109th Congress. Our list isn’t exhaustive, but it does suggest who’s garnering the most attention and why.

If your favorite Member hasn’t made our list, there’s no need to worry. They can just try to make a name for themselves the old-fashioned way: rolling up their sleeves and getting down to work.

“We are always looking for bodies to stand up and say great things on a special order or on a one-minute speech” or to work on action teams, said a senior House GOP aide. “You appreciate people who bring star power to the table, but you always appreciate people who earn everything.”

1. Giant Killers

Topping this list is Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the former Representative from South Dakota whose triumph over then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D) marked the first time in more than half a century that a sitting Senate party leader had been ousted. The win instantaneously catapulted the conservative Thune into one of the major Congressional news stories of 2004.

Thune’s media attention initially soared two years before when he narrowly lost his inaugural Senate bid to Sen. Tim Johnson (D). And so far, the media spotlight shows no signs of letting up. National Public Radio will be following the telegenic, articulate junior Senator over the course of his first year in the chamber.

On the other side of the Capitol, there’s Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), a 43-year-old business consultant who on her second try knocked off the dean of Republican House Members, 17-term Rep. Phil Crane.

Bean’s victory netted her a plum committee assignment: Financial Services, which was only recently made an exclusive committee for Democrats in this Congress. But on the campaign front, Bean will have her work cut out for her: Her win in a GOP-leaning district already makes her a top target of Land of Lincoln Republicans.

Given the relative scarcity of truly competitive House seats, only a small fraction of freshmen enter Congress after defeating an incumbent these days (excluding those who topple incumbents after redistricting has drastically altered the seat’s political makeup). For this reason, almost any incumbent-slayer rates unusual attention. This year, two lesser-known Members who defeated incumbents — Reps. Mike Sodrel (R-Ind.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) — qualify for this category.

2. Charisma

For Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), swooning good looks, a winning personal style and a compelling backstory (as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and the son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother) earned him the slot of keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. These factors, combined with his rout of Republican Alan Keyes in November’s general election, landed him on a recent cover of Newsweek (and loads of other fawning stories) — all before he even took office.

Now, Obama turns heads nearly everywhere he goes — so much that he recently joked that he was so overexposed that he made socialite and reality-show star Paris Hilton “look like a recluse.” Obama, the only black Member currently serving in the Senate, provides Democrats with their most attractive messenger since Bill Clinton exited the scene.

To a lesser degree, two other new members of the Congressional Black Caucus also merit a mention in the charisma column: Reps. Al Green (D-Texas), who ousted Rep. Chris Bell in a Democratic primary, and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), a Methodist pastor and former mayor of Kansas City who won the seat vacated by Rep. Karen McCarthy (D). “They are both amazing speakers,” said the House Democratic strategist. Both won spots on the exclusive Financial Services panel.

3. Already Famous

A strong buzz surrounds Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.). Part of it has to do with his racial heritage: Jindal is a Catholic-convert son of Indian immigrants who’s become only the second Indian-American in history to serve in Congress.

Equally striking to GOP leaders and journalists — if not more so — is the intellectual prowess he displayed so early in his career. Jindal, a former Rhodes scholar, was named to a succession of high-ranking state jobs in Louisiana while still in his mid-twenties by then-Gov. Mike Foster (R), and then was appointed by President Bush to be assistant secretary of Health and Human Services at the tender age of 30.

Now that he’s in the House, Jindal has been assisting the GOP Conference in getting its message out, specifically when it comes to health care issues, his area of expertise. Jindal’s fellow freshmen have elected him class president. “He’s one of the brightest people I’ve ever met,” gushed fellow Bayou State native Livingston, a founding partner of the lobbying shop the Livingston Group.

Another Bush appointee, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), gained a degree of renown (not to mention chits with the president and members of his administration) while serving as secretary of Housing and Urban Development from January 2001 until his departure in 2003 to run for Senate. Martinez, the first Cuban-American Member of Congress, also represents a classic American success story, having first arrived in the United States in 1962 as part of a Catholic relief effort to help Cuban children escape Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship.

Other incoming Members who are already famous include two political mavericks who used to serve in the House: Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

McKinney is a strident critic of the Bush administration and an outspoken voice on the left of the Democratic Party; her failure to vote for a House resolution condemning Palestinian suicide bombers in 2002 angered national Jewish groups and in part contributed to her defeat by Denise Majette (D), who abandoned the seat after one term to run for Senate.

Observers such as former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) said that McKinney is also poised to be “more effective than previously. She ran a very good campaign. She toned down her rhetoric and was elected handily. And hopefully that will carry over into her second Congressional career.”

Likewise, Barr said that Coburn, whose past statements — such as asserting that doctors who perform abortions should get the death penalty — have made him a media favorite, is “in a category by himself” when it came to personal independence from party leadership and conservative credentials.

“I think he will turn out to be one of the strongest if not the strongest true conservative voice in the Senate,” Barr said. “He won his race on his own.”

4. Personal Narrative

The Democratic brother act from Colorado — Sen. Ken Salazar and Rep. John Salazar — represents a one-two punch for Democrats looking to score points with red-state America. Emphasizing their centrist politics and their deep roots as farmers, the Salazars won tough races for seats previously held by Republicans. Ken Salazar even managed to beat the well-known brewing magnate Pete Coors (R). The fact that Ken Salazar became one of two Hispanic Senators (along with Florida’s Martinez) elected in decades only added to the siblings’ mystique.

Though generally quiet and understated, the Salazars have attracted loads of national media attention, including a front-page Washington Post Style section story that details their shared living arrangements in an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest.

Early success also tends to turn heads, as in the case of Congress’ new youngest Member: 29-year-old North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry (R). McHenry won a primary for state House when he was just 22, before finally winning election to that chamber in 2002 after serving as a GOP operative during the Florida recount and as an aide to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

For Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), her fame stems from her history as a one-time teenage mother and welfare recipient who was raised in a poor neighborhood. Moore’s straight-talking reputation — she bluntly told NPR that she “became pregnant in [her] first sexual encounter” — no doubt helped get her elected as Wisconsin’s first black Member. After working her way through college, Moore won seats in the state House and Senate, then helped found a credit union in her neighborhood. Moore won a seat on Financial Services.

Then there’s Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), a grandson of a Lebanese immigrant and an ex-surgeon who’s performed some 6,000 heart surgeries. After winning a tough runoff election, GOP strategists are touting Boustany’s “charisma” and “excellent life story.”

5. Family Matters

Seven close relatives of well-known politicians ran for Congress in 2004, and four of them won, helping them secure a fast track to stardom.

The winners are Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-Fla.), the son of the former House Member and Senator; Rep. Dan Lipinski, an assistant political science professor who inherited his South Side Chicago seat from his father, ex-Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.); Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), son of ex-Sen. David Boren (D-Okla.); and Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), an ex-state Representative whose father, former Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), was posthumously elected to the Senate and whose mother, Jean, was appointed to fill the first two years of his father’s term.

Each will start the 109th Congress with an advantage in institutional know-how and access. Among the four legacies, Boren holds potential to be “a real leader among Blue Dog Democrats,” according to the House Democratic strategist. Meanwhile, the boyishly good-looking Mack, widely considered a conservative rising star, is expected to build on his famous name.

6. Insider Experience

Members who return after a hiatus naturally have an advantage on Capitol Hill, whether or not one considers them “freshmen.” Returning former Republican Reps. Bob Inglis (S.C.) and Dan Lungren (Calif.), for instance, will keep their seniority on the Judiciary Committee.

Other new Members aren’t household names but have legislative leadership in state capitols or policy expertise that has won attention from leadership officials.

Leading most Democratic lists are Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) and Allyson Schwartz (Pa.), two former state Senators who have “hit the ground running,” said a Democratic leadership aide.

Schultz was, at 26, the youngest woman ever elected to the Florida Legislature, eventually rising to Democratic floor leader in the state House. She donated $100,000 to the DCCC before she was even elected and was named the freshman representative to the Democratic Steering Committee — a prime appointment — and to the Democratic Policy Committee.

Schwartz, for her part, outraised every House candidate in 2004 except for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and then-Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas). She founded a women’s health facility in Philadelphia and served as acting commissioner and first deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services.

On the GOP side, Georgia Rep. Tom Price, comes to Congress as the first-ever state Senate Republican Majority Leader in Georgia. An orthopedic surgeon, Price is already well known in Washington from his work on medical malpractice reform, Barr said. Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a former state House Republican leader, is also in the freshman class.

Additionally, the two new Members from Washington state come to the Hill highly touted. Rep. Cathy McMorris (R), a politically savvy and ambitious former state Representative, won election to the coveted slot of freshman representative to the Republican Steering Committee, while Rep. Dave Reichert (R), a former sheriff credited with catching the infamous Green River killer, has, like McMorris, already been singled out by Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) as a star whom he plans to mentor.

Down South, Texas Reps. Mike Conaway (R), who will represent President Bush’s hometown of Midland, and Mike McCaul (R) are also making waves. Sources said Conaway, a CPA and former business partner of Bush, could serve as a valuable voice on business issues for the GOP Conference. McCaul, a wealthy lawyer who was a deputy attorney general under John Ashcroft, will bring expertise on terrorism and national security to the Homeland Security and International Relations panels.