Fundraisers, lotteries and leases: Congressional freshmen prepare

December 16, 2010

Download Story
(Getty/Mark Wilson)
The incoming congressional class of 2010 poses for a recent photo on the Capitol steps.

In less than three weeks, Illinois' newest members of Congress will be sworn in. Robert Dold, Randy Hultgren, Adam Kinzinger, Bobby Schilling and Joe Walsh have all been busy setting up their offices. They're each Republicans, and they're responsible for the Illinois congressional delegation shifting from majority blue to majority red. So, what have the "freshman five" have been up to since November?

Last week the new Republican members of Congress from Illinois got together twice at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington, just steps away from their future office buildings. These weren't private gatherings to prepare for the coming GOP takeover of the U.S. House, or to brainstorm legislation the newbies would focus on. These events were fundraisers.

DOLD: Some people that were in and around Washington that gathered for a breakfast and one that gathered for kind-of some appetizers before dinner.

That is Robert Dold, congressman-elect from the 10th district in Chicago's north suburbs.

DOLD: Largely just an opportunity to mix and mingle with people in and around the area that generally had not contributed to the campaigns of the five of us.

Not contributed to - until last week, that is.

Congressman-elect Randy Hultgren is from the 14th district to the west of Chicago.

HULTGREN: Nice group, but not huge, but it was a good opportunity again to be able to talk with many different people out there, from different parts, but most of them from [the] Midwest area.

But this is also about money. According to a copy of the invitations obtained by the non-partisan Sunlight Foundation, contributors at the events were asked to give at least a thousand dollars to Illinois House Republican Freshmen, a joint fundraising committee established earlier this month.

These newcomers are not apologetic about using one of their first post-election trips to Washington to raise some cash. Here is Adam Kinzinger from the 11th District, which includes much of Will County and snakes south to Bloomington.

KINZINGER: I always thinks it's interesting when people are amazed to find out that candidates are out fundraising, but yet at the same time, if you don't put a million dollar ad buy on television, people wonder if that slam attack ad against you was true.

Since those ads stopped airing and the votes were all counted, the congressmen-elect have begun planning their new lives. That includes learning the parliamentary rules of the U.S. House, but also finding a place to live when in Washington. Hultgren and Dold are each still looking.

HULTGREN: My intention is to just rent a room hopefully from a family out there in Washington, D.C. Hopefully something close to the Capitol, something inexpensive, but at least a place where I can get away a little bit.
DOLD: Some sort of an apartment or something that we could share with another congressman-elect or maybe two congressmen-elect, depending on what we can find, just to try to keep costs down.

Joe Walsh, who scored a surprise victory in the 8th district in Chicago's northwest suburbs, plans to sleep in his Capitol Hill office.

WALSH:  Our kids are older, and when my wife comes and visits me or whenever she comes with me, we'll have to find something else. But in general I'm going to stay in my office.
HUDZIK: You don't think she's going to want to stay in the office with you?
WALSH: I don't think that will be an option.

KINZINGER: Ah, heck no I am not doing the office thing.

Again, Adam Kinzinger.

KINZINGER: I spent enough days in the military to say I, you know, it's time to...I don't have to do that. So I got an apartment actually just within walking distance of my office building.

And what about office space? Each member of Congress will set up offices in their home districts. They also get a Capitol Hill spot, with picking order for primo locations determined by a lottery.

KINZINGER: Whatever number you get, it goes in order then and then when it comes up to you, you get to pick from what's left. Well, I actually got 80 out of 85. I just figured, you know what, I guess I'm destined to have one of the worst offices in Congress.

But Kinzinger says he's actually happy with what he ended up getting.

Joe Walsh was able to avoid the office lottery, thanks to how narrow his victory was over three-term  incumbent Democrat Melissa Bean.

WALSH: Because my race was decided late, I was not thrown in to the freshman lottery, so I inherited Ms. Bean's office.

A better office than Walsh likely would've gotten otherwise.

WALSH: And to Ms. Bean's credit, it's been decorated beautifully. It's a lovely, it's a lovely space.
HUDZIK: No plans for redecorating?
WALSH: No, we will redecorate. Just to put more of a male touch in there.

In fact, Illinois' congressional delegation as a whole will have more of a "male touch" come January. Bean is out, as is Representative Debbie Halvorson. Out of the delegation's 19 House members, there will be just two women: Republican Judy Biggert and Democrat Jan Schakowsky.

The "freshman five" are all men, and all white. But their views are not all the same, and neither are their supporters.

Walsh's insurgent campaign was helped by tea party activists, which made up for his receiving zero support from Republican Party leaders. And he insists he won't forget about those tea partiers.

WALSH: Well, that's who I am. So that would be like forgetting about myself, Sam, and I'm never going to to forget about myself. So, no. That movement is alive and well and it's going to grow every single day.

But Walsh is not afraid to compromise on some issues of importance to the tea party. For example, he offered tentative support for the tax cut deal worked out between the White House and congressional Republicans, even though some conservative lawmakers oppose it.

Robert Dold also must balance loyalty to party with some policy stands he took during the campaign. Dold presented himself to voters as a social moderate on issues like abortion and gun control.

DOLD: And I'm sure there are many within the [House Republican] conference that will take issue with some of my positions on certain things but perhaps more on the social side of things than on the fiscal side.

Kinzinger - more so than any of his fellow Illinois freshmen - is dealing with a newfound fame. He won a spot on the GOP transition team, and has made recent appearances on national cable television. He insists, though, that he plans to keep his focus on his district, and says the new members can help each other avoid political pitfalls.

KINZINGER: We have to work together, and as we face the temptation of Washington, you need people that you're close to that feel comfortable enough to call you out if you feel yourself slipping or you're doing something stupid.

And there will be plenty of opportunities to say or do politically careless things in the 22-and-a-half months before the next general election. And Illinois Democrats could hold a key advantage then.  They control the state legislature and governor's office, so they control redistricting - the process every ten years when the boundaries of congressional districts are re-drawn.

With Illinois expected to lose a seat in the House, Republicans have reason to be worried. When I asked the freshmen about it, they insisted they are focused on the present, but acknowledged they've given it some thought.

HULTGREN: I think we are all uncertain of what's going to happen, so there is that concern of 'What will it look like?'
WALSH: It's always in the back of your mind. And if any of us are telling you we don't think about it, we're lying to you.
DOLD: I try not to think about it too often because there's too many things in front us right now.

And on January 5th at noon, their work officially begins.