Mark Warner Meets Reality

Posted February 1, 2010 at 6:22pm

Just days before cruising to an easy victory in the November 2008 Senate election, Democrat Mark Warner was having a drink at an Applebee’s in Wise, Va., after yet another campaign rally when he was asked what kind of Senator he hoped to be.

“I just want to be a regular freshman Senator,— Warner said at the time. “The recent history shows the Senate is an institution that respects those that respect it and respects its Members and traditions. … I think I’ve got a lot to learn.—

Fifteen months later, the elation of Election Day and excitement and pageantry of being sworn in as a United States Senator has given way to the realities of the hectic pace of life as a Member of Congress. The former governor and millionaire business entrepreneur has celebrated victories in the legislative arena with new colleagues and old role models, but he also admits there are times when aggravation has set in, especially when it comes to the ability of a freshman Senator to make a real difference in the world’s greatest deliberative body.

Roll Call set out to capture as many of these moments as possible by assigning a photographer to cover Warner’s first year on Capitol Hill. On the following pages we’ve included snapshots that we hope will give our readers a glimpse of what life is like as a freshman Senator.

“It’s been a wild first year,— Warner said in a recent interview.

In some ways Warner, who lives just across the Potomac River in Alexandria, Va., considers himself the luckiest Senator.

“I get to sleep at home each night,— he said. “So I can’t complain in terms of the commute, unlike some of the other guys and gals here.—

And Warner said he couldn’t have had a better role model than his predecessor and good friend, former Sen. John Warner (R).

[IMGCAP(1)]“While I have great respect for my 99 other colleagues, they still kind of broke the mold with John Warner,— Mark Warner said. “He in my mind is everything a Senator should be.—

But Mark Warner said there have been times when he’s chafed at the constraints of the job. “I’ve got a growing respect for the institution [but] also a growing frustration at times for the institution,— Warner said.

During his four years as governor, he was often able to take action on his own without waiting for an issue to work its way through the agonizingly slow legislative process.

“I’ve never been a legislator,— Warner said. “I spent a decade in business and then was the executive as governor, so learning this process and recognizing that it’s not how often you talk, but it’s what you say — and trying to make sure that what you say you’ve thought through and got some facts behind it — has been important. I’ve still got more to learn about how to be a legislator.—

Warner entered Congress with high hopes of forming a group of “bipartisan radical centrists— who could help break through some of the partisan deadlocks that have come to define Congress in recent years. A year later, the partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill is as pervasive as ever. Yet Warner still finds reasons to remain hopeful.

“I really think the freshman class has bonded. A reflection of that is when we came together as a group to put together a whole package of cost containment measures on the health care bill,— Warner said. “I think we were the only amendment that had true bipartisan support. … They weren’t sexy. But they were the kind of nitty-gritty measures that need to take place in our health care system in terms of cost containment. That only happened because the freshmen were able to hang together as a group, and if we can hang together on a series of issues, that gives you a voice that needs to be heard and reckoned with.—

The health care debate became one of the defining issues of Warner’s first year in Congress, and after running a campaign where he was so often met with adoring crowds, Warner said he learned some of his most valuable lessons while standing before the much more hostile crowds that attended his health care town halls in 2009.

“I was not a supporter of the public option, so the folks on the left were complaining,— he said, recalling a September town hall that drew 1,500 people. “The folks from the right were concerned and oftentimes not having full information about what was actually in the health care bill. It gave me a sense that when you take on something this complicated, a lot more explanation needed to take place. And at times you just need to tone down the rhetoric a little bit.—

“I had people who say, ‘Man, you took it from both sides,’— Warner added. “I said, ‘If [I] don’t want to do that, then I’ve signed up for the wrong job.’—