New Kid, Old Hand

Granite State’s Shaheen Makes Her D.C. Debut

Posted February 6, 2009 at 3:33pm

As a Member of the freshman class, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is one of the new kids on the block, though perhaps in name only.

The junior Senator from New Hampshire walks through the halls of Congress with the confidence of a pro, despite having been on the Hill for a little more than a month. Of course, she served as New Hampshire’s governor for three terms, a total of six years. That gives her a connection to some other friends in the Senate who are fellow governors-turned-Senators. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) is a prime example of this, she said, because their terms overlapped.

This may be why she feels comfortable speaking on and presiding over the floor, activities that are sometimes nerve-racking for new Members. It doesn’t rattle Shaheen. In fact, she seems to enjoy it.

“It’s interesting because, when a debate is going on, you really get a sense of where people stand on issues,” she said, adding that she’s happy to have the parliamentarian nearby to help her manage the rules.

One other sign that Shaheen knows her political playbook: Her dealings with the press are smooth and unquoteworthy. There is no question that the Senator doesn’t already have an answer for and she takes every opportunity to spin an interview to serve her purposes.

Ask what she thinks is an important issue facing Congress, and she’ll give a polished answer that hits all of her talking points — energy, energy and energy.

“I see energy as one of the major pieces of what’s going to help this economy,” she said. “I think we’re on the verge of an energy revolution.”

When asked who her role models are, she chooses the standard answers: former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. “You can’t be a modern-day Democrat without feeling like FDR made a huge difference,” she said.

While some new Members discuss President Barack Obama’s inauguration with the giddiness of a child, Shaheen is composed and speaks about the sense of history surrounding the event. While she may be a freshman, she’s certainly not one of the star-struck ones.

One of the reasons that Shaheen is so calm and collected may be the years of political experience under her belt. In addition to serving three terms as governor of the Granite State, her name was floated as a possible running mate for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000. (Ultimately, Gore chose Sen. Joe Lieberman [D-Conn.].) While some Members stumble into Congress on the wave of a family name or through an appointment by the governor, Shaheen has put a lot of time and effort into securing a seat in Congress.

In 2002, Shaheen’s Senate aspirations were dealt a major setback when she lost her bid for a seat to then-Rep. John Sununu (R). She narrowly lost the election and soon left politics to take a job at Harvard University.

“I actually had decided that I was never going to run for office again after ’02,” Shaheen said. “I was the director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School at Harvard and had a wonderful job and was enjoying what I was doing.”

That vow only lasted until the opportunity came to face off once again against Sununu in 2008. What changed her mind? She said looking at her grandchildren and wondering what kind of America they would grow up in affected her decision.

“Like so many people, I was very concerned about the direction of the country, and that’s why I got into the Senate race,” she said. “It was really concern about our future.”

Shaheen was also, of course, the beneficiary of good timing. She was able to ride in on a tidal wave of a Democratic windfall led by Obama.

Now Shaheen has a temporary office in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a staff that appears tightknit — “people have to get along because they’re sitting on top of each other,” Shaheen said — and a few floor speeches under her belt.

She is so comfortable in her new role that even a surprise birthday party thrown by her staff and attended by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) didn’t throw her off. While some people scream and others cry upon walking into a surprise celebration, the ever-polished Shaheen simply smiled, joked about the cake — it featured her being sworn in by former Vice President Dick Cheney — and began working the room.