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A Tale of Two Freshmen Democrats « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/12/markey-polis.jpgBetsy Markey and Jared Polis (Flickr: Betsy Markey/Jared Polis for Congress)

Colorado Democrats Betsy Markey and Jared Polis have not been sworn into Congress yet, but they are already shaping up to be different kinds of lawmaker.

Three days after her election, Markey visited a Super Wal-Mart in Sterling to shake hands with voters. Soon after, she embarked on a “listening tour” of the eastern Colorado congressional district she’ll represent beginning Jan. 20.

This week, Polis attended an issues conference at Harvard University for newly elected members of Congress.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The two freshmen Democrats’ travel choices following their elections in November underscore the different challenges each will face in winning reelection in 2010.

Markey won in Colorado’s conservative 4th Congressional District, defeating Republican incumbent Marilyn Musgrave. Polis easily won the 2nd Congressional seat formerly held by Mark Udall, who was elected to the Senate.

Because he won in a Democratic-leaning district and faces no serious challenger in 2010, Polis is free to play more of an insider’s game in Washington. By contrast, Markey’s listening tour marked the beginning of her reelection campaign.

“The difference in the districts’ makeup means that Markey has to focus on the middle of her constituency [in] looking toward the [2010] general election; Polis needs only to focus on the middle of his party [and] a potential primary [fight],” David Rohde, a Duke University political scientist, said.

The two future House members’ different electoral challenges were reflected in their quests for committee appointments.

When he arrived in Washington for a week-long orientation in mid-November, Polis asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for a spot on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. The panel of roughly 50 includes party leaders, committee chairs, the party’s vote counters, members selected to represent different geographical regions and Pelosi’s allies. Its members decide who gets assigned to which committee.

Polis and another freshman Democrat, Debbie Halvorson of Illinois, were tapped to serve on the committee.

“It’s a great opportunity to … get to know many of the [party's] senior members and represent the voice of the incoming class,” Polis said between lectures this week on the federal budget and defense policy at Harvard.

“There are only so many ways for a freshman to get involved and to be in the thick of things. I’m honored that the speaker chose me.”

Polis also wants to serve on committees that would balance the needs of his district with his own interests. Those committees include Financial Services, Education and Labor, International Relations, Small Business, and Natural Resources.

Markey told House Democratic leaders that she wanted a seat on the House Agriculture Committee. She also asked to serve on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, the largest panel in the House, and the Energy and Commerce Committee. The selections will be announced next month.

It is unlikely that she or any other first-term lawmaker will serve on Energy and Commerce because it is considered an “exclusive committee.” Members of such committees — five of the House’s 20 committees and three select committees — cannot serve on another panel.

“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Markey said in a phone interview, adding that showing an early interest in one of the A-list committees could help her in the future.

During orientation week, Polis and Markey were among the 50 newly elected members — 31 Democrats and 19 Republicans (two races remain undecided) — who took a crash course on the inner workings of Congress. They were briefed on such matters as how to purchase computers and other supplies for their new offices, as well as on how a bill becomes law. They also were inundated with the resumes of thousands of job seekers. Markey said she had so much material from orientation week that she shipped a box of papers back to Colorado.

All was not drudgery, though. The freshmen Democrats dined with House Democratic and Republican leaders in the Capitol’s Statutory Hall and participated in a college-dorm-like lottery to choose their offices. Polis landed in 501 Cannon, while Markey will work out of an office on the second floor of the Longworth building.

The new members also had an opportunity to attend the issues conference at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Roughly 40 members did, according to a Kennedy School spokesman.

“I was going to go, but I didn’t feel I really had the time to get there,” said Markey when asked about her decision to return to Colorado. “I wanted to do the county tours, and I felt there was not that much time, with Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays. … “It’s more important for me to listen to people in my district rather than some professors at Harvard.”

On her listening tour, Markey has met with sugar-beet growers, health care professionals and local government officials to has had discussions on the farm bill, wind power and rural health issues.

Polis, meanwhile, was at Harvard listening to discussions on intelligence issues, the federal budget and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This morning, [the topics were] intelligence and bioterrorism, budget problems. The first two sessions were kind of downers,” Polis said jokingly on Wednesday.

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