Every two years at this time, I launch into one of my favorite activities.
It’s a game called “Who is that?”
For months, I’ve poured over the pictures of Congressional candidates. I’ve read about them in news articles. Seen them in interviews. But you’re not really sure who to look for until they’re actually elected. That narrows the field. Then comes the hard part. Discerning each of the more than 90 of the new House members as they descend on Washington for freshman orientation.
As a reporter who covers Capitol Hill, you may think you’ve memorized the visages of these big freshman classes of House members just by staring for hours at pictures of them all. But you can’t truly digest who’s who until you see them in person.
The ritual starts on a street corner of a hotel a few blocks from the Capitol. This is the beginning of the freshman orientation. Reporters and cameras are squished together on a narrow swath of sidewalk. Cabs, Ubers, buses, you name it, pull up in front of the hotel and someone spills out. Then you have to figure out if that’s a freshman member….or someone else.
The best telltale sign that it’s a member-elect are the suitcases. Some come up the street pulling a handy, travel-friendly, fits-easily-in-the-over-head-compartment rolling bag. Other freshman members arrive with enough gear for the Ringling Brothers. Which is perhaps appropriate, considering the three-ring atmosphere which often dominates Capitol Hill.
Then all of the reporters spy someone and start guessing. Is that Rep.-elect Madeleine Dean, D-Pa? Rep.-elect Mark Green, R-Tenn? Rep.-elect Van Taylor, R-Texas?
There are the easy ones like Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY. But how many of you can pick out Rep.-elect Carol Miller, R-W.Va?
Sometimes all of the reporters waiting at the hotel gets thrown off. Someone comes up the street with a suitcase – and it turns out to just be someone coming up the street with a suitcase.
Four years ago at the orientation, I had never seen then-freshman Rep. French Hill, R-Ark. in my life. I pursued a man down the street for a block who I presumed to be Hill. Turns out, it was just a guy who worked at the Library of Congress.
If you are a reporter and live in the Washington, DC TV market, you have most certainly committed to memory what Reps.-elect Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., and Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., look like. Both were on the air constantly in September and October with a barrage of ads in their respective quests to topple Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., and Barbara Comstock, R-Va. For a DC reporter, picking Spanberger and Wexton out of a crowd is like spelling “cat” in scrabble. But if you’re really good at this who’s who, you’d know Del.-elect Michael San Nicolas, D-Guam. He defeated longtime Del. Madeleine Bordallo, D-Guam, in the August primary and will become Guam’s non-voting delegate to Congress in January.
A reporter knowing San Nicolas would be like spelling “oxyphenbutzone” on the Scrabble board.
A few freshmen may not be overexposed like Ocasio-Cortez. But sharp reporters should know Rep.-elect Donna Shalala, D-Fla. She served for eight years as President Clinton’s Health and Human Services Secretary. Rep.-elect Steve Horsford, D-Nev., is also a known quantity. That’s because he served one term in Congress four years ago before losing to former Rep. Cresent Hardy, R-Nev. Rep.-elect Ed Case, D-Hawaii, is back. Case served most of two-terms in Congress, from 2003 through 2007. Rep.-elect Greg Pence, R-Ind., should be easy to spot. He looks a lot like his brother, Vice President Mike Pence. Greg Pence will represent the same district his younger brother once held in Congress.
The House Administration Committee runs the orientation. The panel always brings in a few people from races which haven’t yet been called. Rep.-elect Ben McAdams, D-Utah, is now Rep.-elect Ben McAdams, D-Utah. But a few days ago, McAdams made his way through the orientation bearing a nametag which simply read “candidate,” not Rep.-elect. McAdams had not yet vanquished Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah. But McAdams can now ditch his “candidate” nametag. He’s a Rep.-elect.
Also, the House swore-in three freshman who simultaneously won election to the 119th Congress – but also special elections to fulfil the remainder of unexpired terms. The House greeted Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., Kevin Hern, R-Okla., and Joseph Morelle, D-NY, for orientation and swore them in as a part of the present Congress. They succeed former Reps. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla. - who is now the NASA Administrator - and the late Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY.
Up at the hotel, the best tactic to meet some of the freshman members is to not get caught up in the press pen. Let the rest of the press corps work the “line of scrimmage.” Instead, I sometimes hang back about a block away, playing “free safety.” That’s where I encountered Reps.-elect Lori Trahan, D-Mass., Kendra Horn, D-Okla., and Tim Burchett, R-Tenn.
If you are a reporter and trying to put a name with a face on all of the newcomers, keep your eyes open as you walk around the Capitol. That’s where I saw Reps.-elect Antonio Delgado, D-NY, Jeff Van Drew, D-N.J., Greg Steube, R-Fla., and Steve Watkins, R-Okla. I was about to leave the Capitol one night when I came across Rep.-elect Colin Allred, D-Texas, trying to locate a room near the Speaker’s Lobby.
Over the past two weeks, reporters have assembled various “facebooks” and other pictoriol aides to help them get to know the freshman class. For the record, we used to just call these primers “facebooks” until Facebook came on the scene. I will spend part of of my Thanksgiving, and, inevitably Christmas holidays, sitting in cars, lounges at airports, and on airplanes, studying the names and faces of all the new members.
But frankly, it’s hard to really know them all until you see them in person.
A good example of this came in 2014. One of the “facebooks” put pictures of then incoming Reps. Mike Bost, R-Ill., Rod Blum, R-Iowa, David Young, R-Iowa, and Bruce Poliquin, R-Maine, together. They all have glasses and similar hair. But until you see them in person, you would never know that Young is stocky. Blum is tall (and always wears a pocket square). Poliquin is short.
For the record, of those four, only Bost survived the 2018 midterm.
And that’s why it’s time to learn a whole new class of people for the 116th Congress.