Climbing the Hill: New Legislators Are Sworn In
Editor’s note: Voice of America is following two new U.S. lawmakers — Democratic Representative Katie Porter, representing California’s 45th congressional district, and Republican Representative Pete Stauber, representing Minnesota’s 8th congressional district — as they learn the ropes as freshman lawmakers in the 116th U.S. Congress. Through their eyes, we hope to offer VOA audiences a deeper insight into the inner workings of one of the three branches in the American system of government. In the coming months, VOA will be reporting on the lawmakers’ experiences and challenges during their first year in the House of Representatives.
Katie Porter’s birthday took a back seat to something more important this year. On the day she turned 45, she was sworn in as California’s 45th district’s U.S. Representative.
Newly elected Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi congratulated her from the speaker’s seat shortly after Pelosi swore in this year’s 116th Congress. But Democrat Porter’s first day was filled with official business, including meetings, getting identification badges and parking permits, and greeting her supporters.
A family celebration was saved for the evening. “My kids were very excited that there [were] cupcakes and cake and cookies and sugary drinks — all at the same event,” Porter said.
She is one of a record number of 102 female lawmakers in this year’s U.S. House of Representatives. They make up nearly 24 percent of the 435 representatives, whereas women outnumber men in the general U.S. population, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Also taking the oath of office Thursday were the first Muslim, Native American, Somali and Palestinian women, as well as the youngest and oldest representatives elected to the House, making the 116th Congress the most diverse in history.
From professor to politician
Prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Porter was better known as Professor Porter, a tenured and published law professor at the University of California, Irvine campus.
Her focus on consumer bankruptcy stemmed from what she experienced as a child in Iowa during the 1980s farm crisis, when thousands of family farmers defaulted on loans and lost their land. She said she witnessed what happened when the local bank was shut down and the government did not step in.
Porter studied law at Harvard University under Elizabeth Warren, now a senator from Massachusetts who this week announced a plan to run for president in 2020.
Porter, a single mother, was joined in her sparse office this week by her three children–ages 12, 10, and 7– who munched on pizza and played games as she prepared.
“This Lego piggy bank was a present from a friend that knows I want to work on financial services,” she said pointing to a toy.
Representative Maxine Waters, a fellow Democrat from California, is the chair of the House Financial Services Committee, which means Porter may have a shot at being assigned to the committee.
Beginnings of campaign
On election night, Nov. 8, 2016, Porter was ready to head to Washington, having been asked to join Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s transition team. She would be involved in housing policy.
But Clinton lost the election, and Porter felt she had lost a job.
The day after the election, however, a friend said, “You don’t have to wait for other people to create opportunity for you,” which was the impetus to run for office herself, she said.
Two years later, on Nov. 6, 2018, she unseated two-term incumbent Representative Mimi Walters, a Republican.
Hockey pucks, police shootings
Like Porter, Republican Pete Stauber was sworn in Thursday, representing Minnesota’s 8th congressional district.
Stauber had two successful careers — in hockey and law enforcement — before he turned to politics.
As a college hockey player, he captained the Lake Superior State University men’s team to a 1988 national championship. The team was invited to the White House and met with then-President Ronald Reagan.
He also played professional hockey with the Detroit Red Wings Organization.
After hockey, he joined the Duluth (Minnesota) Police Department, where he was shot in the head by a criminal suspect in 1995. He retired as an area police commander in 2017.
A year later, he ran as a Republican who supports the rights of gun owners, and was able to win Minnesota’s 8th — a staunch Democratic district. He became only its second Republican in 71 years.
He and his wife, Jodi, an Iraqi war veteran, have four children, three teenaged sons ages 16,17 and 18, and a 12-year-old daughter.
Stauber joins the House as the majority shifts to Democrats. He said his priorities are jobs and the economy, and noted that “67 percent of the legislation passed on a bipartisan basis in the last Congress.”
“We are going to do it again,” he said.
About an hour before he was sworn in, Stauber showed a visitor to his office his new lapel pin, which identified him as a U.S. representative. “Look at you! You’re official,” the visitor exclaimed.
Challenges of new job, new city
Finding a place to live has always been a challenge for legislators who have to budget staff, flights to and from their home states to Washington, and high housing costs around the Capitol.
Stauber is choosing to live with three other congressmen in a townhouse, as his wife stays with the children in Minnesota. Describing his Washington bedroom as the size of a shed, he said it is furnished with a bunk bed so one child can visit at a time.
Porter has arranged child care for her three children in California until the end of the school year, when they might move to the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, she is renting a one-room studio apartment with a “tiny, tiny little kitchen.”
Porter said when her children visit, she will pull out a sofa bed that touches her bed, creating “one big place” to sleep — kind of “like camping out.”
Except within distance of one of the most powerful lawmaking institutions in the world.