Freshman Wastes No Time Getting Into Trouble

Posted November 19, 2008 at 6:52pm

It’s the first morning of New Member Orientation in the Cannon Caucus Room and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) — acting as the schoolmarm for the incoming class — is calling out a list of names. The Representatives-elect whose names are announced need to come to the front of the Cannon Caucus Room to “take care of some housekeeping matters,” she says.

As soon as he hears his name, Rep.-elect Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) drops his scone and scurries forward.

“First day and I’m already tardy,” he says to his chief of staff, Todd Mitchell.

“You’re already getting into trouble,” Mitchell jokes as Lance is ushered into a line of other freshmen who need to have their photos taken for their voting cards.

Lance was elected earlier this month to replace retiring Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) in a race that he wasn’t expected to win. Ferguson’s retirement was spurred by news that Linda Stender (D), who nearly defeated him in 2006, was preparing to challenge him once again. Lance, who served in the state Senate for six years, fought hard to win the Republican primary — defeating Kate Whitman, who significantly outspent him — and eventually won a seat in the 111th Congress 51 percent to 42 percent.

“I have done my best regarding state issues, and the reason I ran is because I wish to focus on national and international issues,” Lance says. “And of course there was an open seat.”

Since his arrival in Washington on Sunday, Mitchell, who once served as then-Rep. Rob Simmons’ (R-Conn.) chief of staff, has acted as Lance’s right-hand man. The two first met in the early summer, and Mitchell quickly signed onto the campaign. After winning, Lance chose him to run his D.C. office.

“Leonard really is the type of Member I see myself working for,” Mitchell says. “He’s down to earth and he’s here for the right reasons. I think he’s going to have to work really hard to find like-minded Members.”

Mitchell describes Lance as an “old-school moderate Republican that is part of a dying breed” and says the two share a love of history and their dogs. Lance says he spends his free time reading up on American history and that he admires Abraham Lincoln. “I realize I’m a freshman of Congress, but I’m certainly inspired by great figures of American history,” he says.

The Garden State freshman has been trying to process a lot of information since his arrival. Orientation is essentially a crash course in how to be a Member of Congress, with the newly elected lawmakers learning how to participate in the office lottery, what ethics rules they must abide by and how franking works.

“There’s an obvious bond between those in the same class, and it reminds me of the first week of law school,” Lance says.

His first stop of the trip was a dinner hosted by Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the Rayburn Room on Sunday evening. “The food was wonderful. I have to find the House gym, pronto,” he jokes.

Right now, Lance’s top priority is setting up his district office so he can start helping the people of New Jersey. While he is excited to be working in Washington, he and his wife, Heidi, plan to keep their main residence in Flemington, where they live in a farmhouse built in the 18th century. Lance hopes to find an efficiency or one-bedroom on Capitol Hill that he can call home during the week. He’s quick to add that he isn’t interested in any roommates.

“I’ve been out of college for some time, and I think I would like an efficiency of my own.”

Despite wanting to live alone, Lance is eager to make friends. During breaks from orientation, Lance works the room, walking up to his colleagues and introducing himself, often having a common bond in mind after perusing the new Member face book.

“I try to get to have a connection with every Member,” he says, adding that this skill served him well in the state Senate. Already Lance has made a connection with Rep.-elect Jared Polis (D-Colo.) because they both attended Princeton University. Lance also discovered that Rep.-elect Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) worked with a law school classmate of his.

“We’re teammates on the same adventure,” he says of his new colleagues.

Lance describes himself as a moderate Republican and is eager to reach across the aisle in the spirit of bipartisanship. He made Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) aware of this when he spoke with her at a dinner Monday in Statuary Hall. Shortly thereafter, the Speaker led the new class onto the House floor for the first time.

“I think my impression of the floor of the House is from viewing — on television — the State of the Union every year, and it was exciting to be able to be there,” he says, adding that he has a lifelong interest in architecture that the Capitol is satiating around every turn. “In my next life I will be an architect,” he says.

Until then, Lance will focus on learning the ropes of his new job, a task he says is reminiscent of law school.

“There is an overload of information, and I hope I am able to absorb it all,” he says, adding that being in the minority doesn’t discourage him. “I think it is a challenge. My reading of American history is that there are high tides and low tides, but that the tide always comes back in.”