Capitol Gains: Life as a New Congresswoman

Press, pragmatism and comfy shoes – two new women legislators tell us about their first month in office.

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The 113th Congress includes a record amount of women – totaling 20 Senators and 81 House members. But the Democratic riptide that rolled through the country in November actually left Republicans with fewer of the fairer sex in their ranks. That’s part of the reason why Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner’s first month in the Capitol was busier than the average freshman’s. Especially, in front of the cameras.

Wagner, who easily won an open House seat in November representing the St. Louis suburbs, is telegenic, articulate and politically savvy – and one of three new GOP women in the House. So naturally, she was tapped early and often by Republican leadership to be a prominent message carrier.

Even back in October – weeks before she was elected – Wagner was chosen to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s weekly address. And once in office, she spent her first few weeks rushing between television studios while juggling radio interviews on the phone.  During just her third week in office, she participated in a national press conference on the Republican-sponsored “No Budget, No Pay” act.

In fact, the former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg and Republican National Committee co-chair ended up missing most of the opening session receptions she held for supporters in order to meet the press.

“I was doing CNN and then ran to the NBC affiliate in order to get on Channel 5 and then did radio,” Wagner recalled.  “We really maximized our opportunity to do both national press and local press.”

If Republicans are to gradually make their brand more appealing to women, faces like Wagner will be part of the reason why. But it won’t be without a fight – electoral success hasn’t dampened Democratic efforts to continue to paint the GOP as anti-women, and another freshman, Florida Rep. Lois Frankel, has brought gusto to the fight.

The former West Palm Beach mayor has been blasting Speaker John Boehner for “playing politics” with renewing the Violence Against Women Act. “The GOP isn’t done with their war on women yet,” she warned in an email to supporters urging them to amp up the pressure.

Of course, it’s not all out political warfare all the time, especially among the freshmen. While Wagner and Frankel will undoubtedly clash on a raft of issues in the months ahead, over the last month they’ve shared the burdens of getting acclimated to Hill culture.

“What I haven’t gotten used to yet is all of the walking,” says Wagner. “A ton of walking.  Ugly, comfortable shoes are about to become my best friend.” Frankel concurs, “I feel like we walk miles every day.” And both have experienced “pinch-me” moments.  Wagner’s came on the House floor during her swearing in – “I did take a deep breath and took all that in before we started racing about again.” Holding a seat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Frankel’s first hearing featured none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “That was a really big thrill for me,” she says. “You really feel like you’re part of history.”

But neither are political novices – so instead of grandiose, lofty goals, these freshmen are focusing on the pragmatic during their first year. Ask Wagner what her goals are and she keeps it simple: Don’t leap. “Never say what you’re never going to do,” she says. “You’ve got to watch how things evolve, be reflective about things, listen to all sides.”

Frankel similarly has her eyes fixed on the near at hand. She says, “I was told, ‘Don’t focus your service on getting major pieces of legislation passed. Focus on getting to know your people back home.’”

David Catanese is a reporter from Washington D.C. who previously worked for Politico. You can find him at @davecatanese.



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