New Congress Profile: Freshmen to Push Left Agenda

Monday, 05 Jan 2009 06:19 PM

By John Mercurio

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When the 111th Congress is sworn in Tuesday, several new faces will grace the House and Senate, including at least 13 freshmen senators and 54 brand-new representatives. The new members are part of a wave that helped the Democrats make significant gains in both chambers, with the Dems picking up 78 seats in the House and 16 in the Senate.

Two notable vacancies in Minnesota and Illinois remain open in name only: Both are locks for the Democrats.

So who are these new legislators? And what will their election mean for the major issues they must consider, including healing a crippled economy, keeping America safe, and weighing thorny matters such as abortion, family values, and the environment?

From a strictly party perspective, Congress clearly has moved to the left. But the exact answers are as varied as the men and women making their debut trips to Capitol Hill. Here’s a rundown of the House and Senate newcomers, along with a list of notable freshmen sure to be making news in the coming year.

The Senate Experience

One thing you can say about the Senate’s freshman class: They do love public service. Every one of the nine senators elected for the first time in 2008 already has spent at least five years in elected office, including two who have served more than two decades.

The list includes seven Democrats and two Republicans, both of whom prevailed despite a tough national landscape for the GOP. It includes seven men and two women, whose election will increase the number of women in the Senate to a record-breaking 17. It includes four former governors, two former congressmen, four attorneys, two former mayors, and one financial executive. Four of the new senators come from famous political families, including two who are cousins. All of the Democratic freshmen generally are expected to be reliable votes for their party, which will have its biggest majority since 1977. Four of them (from Alaska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Oregon) defeated Republican incumbents.

Following are brief biographies of new senators in the 111th Congress, including appointed Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who is serving out the remainder of Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s term in the:

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska: Begich, 46, a financial executive, is the two-term mayor of Alaksa’s biggest city, Anchorage. But he’s perhaps best known as the son of a legendary Alaska politician, the late Nick Begich, whose airplane disappeared in the Gulf of Alaska during his 1972 re-election bid. The plane, which also carried then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, was never found. Mark Begich first gained prominence in local politics when, as a member of the Anchorage City Assembly in 1989, he led the opposition to the sale of the municipally owned Anchorage Telephone Utility to private interests. He will be the only senator in the 111th Congress without a college degree.

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.): Udall, 58, is a five-term congressman from Boulder, an avid outdoorsman, and son of the late Rep. Mo Udall of Arizona, a pioneering hero of environmentalists and 1976 presidential candidate (his cousin, Tom, is the senator-elect from New Mexico). Mark Udall has followed his family’s interest in politics, serving two years in the Colorado Legislature before being elected to Congress in 1998. During his decade in the House, he focused primarily on energy independence and environmental issues. An early opponent of the Iraq war, he also served on the Armed Services Committee. A fifth-generation Westerner, Udall worked for 20 years as an instructor, course director, and program director with the Colorado Outward Bound School. During that time, he expanded the program’s minority outreach efforts.

Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del.: Kaufman, 69, a political and management consultant in Delaware and lecturer at Duke University's law school, is viewed widely as a placeholder for Biden’s eldest son, Beau, who plans to seek his father’s seat in 2010 after he returns from a tour of Iraq. Kaufman met the elder Biden in the early 1970s, when Biden was a long-shot Senate candidate and Kaufman was working in local party politics. He is a consummate Biden loyalist, having worked for the senator for 22 years, including 19 as chief of staff. He also advised Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign and has co-chaired his vice presidential transition team.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho: Risch, 65, an attorney who will succeed disgraced Republican Sen. Larry Craig, is a veteran of Idaho politics. A former prosecutor from Boise who once was the target of local drug kingpins, he won his first term in the state Senate in 1974 and rose slowly through the ranks to become lieutenant governor in 2002. Risch served seven months as governor after then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, resigned in May 2006 to become Interior secretary in the Bush administration. During that time, Risch focused mostly on Idaho’s nursing shortage, the cost of prescription drugs, and property taxes.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb.: Johanns, 58, an attorney and longtime politician from Lincoln who was a Democrat until 1988, is the only freshman in the 111th Congress who served in the Bush Cabinet. The only Republican to win re-election as governor in Nebraska since 1956, he resigned in 2005 to become Agriculture secretary. As governor, Johanns was enormously popular, enjoying a reputation as a low-key but outgoing executive who was loath to raise taxes. He remains a Bush loyalist, supporting a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. But he strongly criticized the $700 billion bailout for the financial industry and opposed No Child Left Behind, one of the president’s signature pieces of legislation.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.: Shaheen, 61, a former state legislator and teacher who is the first woman in U.S. history to be elected as both a governor and a senator, also was the first woman elected governor of New Hampshire. The first Democratic senator from New Hampshire in nearly 30 years, she defeated Republican Sen. John Sununu by a wide margin in November in a rematch of a 2002 battle that Sununu narrowly won. While she geared up to face Sununu a second time, she was director of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Indeed, politics has been a longtime focus of Shaheen, who was national chair of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.: Udall, 60, a former New Mexico attorney general and five-term congressman, is son of the late Stewart Udall, who was Interior secretary during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. (Tom Udall’s cousin, Mark, is the senator-elect from Colorado). During his decade in the House, Tom Udall largely upheld the political agenda of his legendary family, compiling a moderate-to-liberal voting record and focusing largely on environmental issues, labor, and health issues. Unlike other members of his family, however, Udall is a member of the Mormon Church.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.: Hagan, 55, is an attorney and state senator whose uncle, the late Lawton Chiles, was a Democratic senator and governor from Florida. She developed her early interest in politics while working on Chiles’ campaigns in the 1970s. She began her own political career as campaign manager for Gov. Jim Hunt in 1992. Hagan defeated Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in November in one of the biggest upsets of 2008. She won with the largest margin of victory for a Senate race in North Carolina in 30 years while inflicting the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator in 2008.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.: Merkley, 52, the state House speaker in Oregon and a longtime community organizer in Portland, is a product of the Democratic establishment who comes to the Senate with a reputation as a staunch partisan and a vocal critic of the Bush administration. In August 2007, for example, the Oregon House speaker formally called for the impeachment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And last month, before even taking office, he penned a fundraising letter for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, warning that “the extreme right wing is already gearing up to attack Harry” in 2010.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va.: Warner, 54, a former party activist/fundraiser and governor who made a personal fortune in the late 1980s as a pioneer in licensing for cell-phone markets, rose quickly in Virginia politics by clinging to the ideological center. He’s credited with reviving the Democratic Party in Virginia by shifting away from liberal positions on social and cultural issues and reaching out to rural voters. As governor, he worked closely with the state legislature’s GOP majority to overcome a budget crisis and reverse a steep economic downturn. He’s expected to align himself closely with Democratic moderates in the Senate and focus on the economy and jobs.

Rocking the House

One of the few silver linings for House Republicans in the 111th Congress is that the expanded Democratic majority relies heavily on freshmen members who owe their victories to strong support from — you guessed it — Republicans. Some of those freshmen were, at one point, Republicans themselves (one even worked for Richard Nixon). They abandoned the party because of the Iraq war or the Gingrich revolution in the 1990s. But many still adhere to some of the principles of the party they left behind.

Here’s a list of 10 freshman House Democrats who broke the GOP’s lock on some of their most reliable strongholds, from the Deep South to the Mountain West. Each surely will pledge allegiance to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democratic leaders. But look for them to align with their Republican colleagues on more than few key votes:

Bobby Bright, D-Ala., 2nd Congressional District: Bright, 56, a cotton farmer-turned-attorney and three-term mayor of the state capital Montgomery, became the first Democrat to capture this district since 1965 by running as a no-nonsense, law-and-order conservative. Bright, who had not affiliated formally with any political party until he announced his congressional campaign in 2007, never endorsed Barack Obama for president, although he did accept campaign contributions from House Democrats such as Pelosi. He gained prominence in Alabama politics in the 1990s through a successful law practice that specialized in defending doctors and nurses. In 1999, he defeated 21-year incumbent Mayor Emory Folmar and proceeded to invest heavily in urban development. Symbolically, he moved the mayor’s residence from an upscale eastern neighborhood to a downtown loft apartment. He is also an active member and deacon in his Baptist Church.

Kathy Dahlkemper, D-Pa., 3rd District: Dahlkemper, 51, a dietician and owner of a landscaping business, was a newcomer to politics when she announced her challenge to seven-term Republican Rep. Phil English. That is particularly impressive, considering she will be the first Democrat to represent the district since 1976, and only the third Democrat since 1893. Since 1997, she has been part-owner, human resources manager, and special projects director of Dahlkemper Landscape Architects and Contractors, a major landscaping firm in the area. She is also co-founder and director of the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park.

Steve Driehaus, D-Ohio, 1st District: Driehaus, 42, a community organizer and state House minority whip, ousted Republican Rep. Steve Chabot in the district his father, Don, unsuccessfully sought 40 years ago. The younger Driehaus worked in Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer. Upon his return from West Africa, he became associate director of the Center for International Education and Development Assistance at Indiana University, where he coordinated several programs, including the highly acclaimed South African Internship Program sponsored by the United States Information Agency. During the 1990s, he immersed himself in local politics, first as a legislative aide to a Cincinnati city councilman and next to then-Rep. Charlie Luken, a Democrat.

Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., 1st District Kirkpatrick, 58, an attorney and state representative, rode a national anti-GOP wave that was particularly acute in a district where a federal extortion scandal felled the congressman, Republican Rick Renzi Kirkpatrick worked as a prosecutor for the Coconino County District Attorney’s Office before serving as city attorney for Sedona. In 2004, she began teaching business law and ethics at Coconino Community College. In the state House, Kirkpatrick focused on Native American issues, working to fund infrastructure projects, for example, and lobbying the Justice Department to rescind state election laws that she argued disenfranchised their community.

Larry Kissell, D-N.C., 8th District: Kissell, 57, a mill worker-turned-social studies teacher, beat five-term Rep. Robin Hayes in this conservative district in a rematch of a 2006 race that Hayes won by 329 votes. Given his life experience, Kissell is likely to focus on trade issues in Congress. After a brief stint at Union Carbide, he worked at a hosiery factory for 27 years, rising to production manager. But he grew concerned about the effects of NAFTA on the textile industry and quit his job at the hosiery plant in 2001. He took a job as a social studies teacher at his former high school, East Montgomery High School. The plant closed in 2003.

Frank Kratovil, D-Md., 1st District: Kratovil, 40, an attorney with strong conservative credentials, became the first Democrat to capture this GOP stronghold in 18 years by drawing strong support from Republicans, including the retiring congressman, Wayne Gilchrest. (Gilchrest endorsed Kratovil over Republican Andy Harris, who defeated Gilchrest in the GOP primary). Kratovil is serving his second term as state’s attorney in rural Queen Anne’s County. In that role, he pushed for stronger legislation to crack down on gangs and drugs in Maryland’s rural areas.

Betsy Markey, D-Colo., 4th District: Markey, 52, a businesswoman and former congressional aide, prevailed in one of the country’s conservative strongholds by running as a moderate alternative to Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, a hero to the religious right. In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the State Department recruited Markey to develop computer security policies for the newly formed Office of Information Systems Security. She served as director of computer security policy and training and worked to craft computer security policy. She created the department’s first computer security training program for management, security personnel, and support staff globally. In 1988, she started an Internet business called Syscom Services. She moved to Colorado in 1995, where she became a local Democratic Party chairwoman and then a regional director for Democrat Sen. Ken Salazar, the designated Interior secretary in the Obama administration.

Eric Massa, D-N.Y., 29th District: Massa, 49, a telecommunications specialist and former congressional aide, became the first Democrat to win this heavily Republican district since 1986, ousting Republican Rep. Randy Kuhl in a rematch of a 2006 contest that Kuhl won by about 6,000 votes. Massa, a former Republican who switched parties because of his opposition to the Iraq war, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1981 and went on to serve in the Navy for 24 years. He qualified as a surface warfare officer on the USS New Jersey (BB-62), and eventually served as aide to former NATO supreme allied commander, Gen.Wesley Clark.

Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, 1st District: Minnick, 66, an attorney, forest industry official, and garden store chain owner, gave Democrats a foothold in deeply Republican Idaho because his target, Republican Rep. Bill Sali, sustained several legislative and campaign stumbles during his short, two-year congressional career. Winnick is a former Republican; he was president of the College Republicans at Whitman College in Washington state and worked in the Nixon White House. He was also involved in the creation of the Drug Enforcement Administration and helped consolidate all U.S. Border Patrol functions into a single agency in the Treasury Department. But he became a Democrat in the mid-1990s, saying he believed then-Speaker Newt Gingrich was leading the party too far to the right. In 1996, he challenged then-Sen. Larry Craig, holding the Republican Craig to his lowest reelection margin ever (57 percent).

Harry Teague, D-N.M., 2nd District: Teague, 59, an oil services executive and former Lea County commissioner, broke the GOP’s 28-year lock on this sprawling, rural district by tying his Republican rival, restaurateur Ed Tinsley, to unpopular President Bush at every turn. When Teague was a senior in high school, he dropped out to support his impoverished family by working in the oil fields. He earned $1.50 an hour. Today, Teague owns his own company, Teaco Energy Services, which services oil wells in New Mexico and Texas. It employs more than 250 workers.

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