Historic class storms Capitol

November 14, 2018

Originally Published in The Hill

By Melanie Zanona


The most diverse Congress in history is descending on the Capitol, with newly elected lawmakers arriving in Washington, D.C., to meet their future colleagues and get acclimated to their new environment.

Next year’s Congress will include a record number of women, while the incoming freshman class will also boast a number of firsts: The first two Native American women. The first Somali-American lawmaker. The first two Muslim women. The first Palestinian-American woman.

“It’s thrilling, absolutely thrilling to see just the energy around this election cycle, and so many terrific women coming to Congress,” Rep.-elect Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) said outside a Courtyard by Marriott hotel on Tuesday, where new member orientation is being held this week. “I’m just honored to be a part of it.”

“I’m so excited,” added Rep.-elect Deb Haaland (N.M.), one of the two Native American women set to join the Democratic ranks next year.

The legislative body will more closely resemble the makeup of the United States, though its overall composition will still tilt white and male compared to the general population. 

Many of the new Democrats are young and progressive, underscoring the generational and ideological divisions that are likely to pull at the conference over the next two years.

That dynamic was on full display Tuesday, when Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a rising star on the left, made a splash on her first day of freshman orientation by joining more than 100 youth protesters outside of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) office to demand action on climate change.

“This is not about me, this is not about the dynamics of any personality,” the 29-year-old Latina, who toppled veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley in the New York Democratic primary, told reporters. “This is about uplifting the voice and the message of the fact we need a green new deal.”

“We are here to back [Pelosi] up in pushing for 100 percent renewable energy,” Ocasio-Cortez added. “This is an encouragement of her.”

Some of the activists who organized the event were less positive.

After noting a United Nations report that found time is running out to tackle climate change, Justice Democrats Executive Director Alexandra Rojas said in a statement that “Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party leadership are reviving stale, so-called ‘bipartisan’ ideas that get nowhere near the scale of the crisis.”

Pelosi’s office blasted out a statement applauding the enthusiastic protests and reiterating her plan to reinstate a select committee on climate change — a move the groups have described as toothless.

“We welcome the presence of these activists, and we strongly urge the Capitol Police to allow them to continue to organize and participate in our democracy,” Pelosi said.

The demonstration pointed to the internal pressures Democratic leaders are likely to feel from liberals in their caucus, who firmly believe progressivism enabled their party to take back the House majority.

The caucus elected is not only younger and more diverse, but also reflects a wide range of ideology. Along with Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal star with more than 1 million Twitter followers, it includes Abigail Spanberger, an ex-CIA operative who defeated Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) in a swing district, and Angie Craig, a former medical technology executive who won a seat in the Minneapolis suburbs. None of them are committing to backing Pelosi for Speaker.

All of these new members are among the female candidates who made historic gains on Election Day, helping to deliver the House majority to Democrats.

At least 129 women were elected to serve in Congress next year — up from 112 this current session, according to Quorum, a legislative tracking company. That includes 35 new women in the House and three in the Senate.

Yet even after the “Year of the Woman,” women will only make up 24 percent of Congress, which is far less than the overall population, which is about 50 percent female.

And the gender gap between Democrats and Republicans is set to widen even further, with the GOP on track to lose 10 of its female lawmakers, or nearly half.

Still, the influx of Democratic women could influence the congressional agenda next year as a number of female candidates campaigned on policies like equal pay, paid family leave and overhauling sexual assault rules.

The new Congress is also set to be more racially diverse than the current one, adding nine new Hispanic members and eight new black lawmakers to its ranks, according to Quorum.

Among the fresh faces who will flood the Capitol hallways next year are Haaland and Rep.-elect Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who will become the first two Native American women to serve in Congress.

The pair has met before but they linked up again for coffee following new member orientation on Tuesday.

“We’re going to get together and start our sisterhood,” Haaland told reporters.

Meanwhile, Democrats Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota became the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is replacing former Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who resigned late last year in the face of sexual harassment allegations.

Omar, who is poised to become the first Somali-American representative, lamented that only minority candidates are asked how they were able to win over majority-white districts.

“I just want to say, in a new era, where we are focused on talking about what’s at stake for the people that we represent, I hope that kind of question is one that we never ask,” Omar said at a Congressional Progressive Caucus press conference on Monday. “The same way that I hope we never continuously talk about the ‘firsts.’ ”

Other history-makers include Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley (D), who will become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts.

Ocasio-Cortez documented her orientation — which involved a reception for new members and a tour of the Capitol — on Instagram, even posting a picture with the caption “squad” with Tlaib, Omar and Pressley.

On the GOP side, California congressional candidate Young Kim appears poised to become the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress. She is leading a too-close-to-call race to replace retiring Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).

And Democrats Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia are set to become the first Latinas to represent Texas, a state with a growing Hispanic population that has slowly shifted politically with demographic changes.

“It’s an incredible privilege, I’ll tell you,” Escobar told reporters on Tuesday. “A woman, probably about in her 70s, Latina, essentially cried on her doorstep, saying she never thought she’d see the day when a Latina would represent her in Congress. And it moved me, tremendously.”

Rafael Bernal and Miranda Green contributed.