Freshmen still finding their way in the House

But persistence of rookies Ruppersberger, Van Hollen paying off with small wins

November 10, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- His pager emits a piercing ring, signaling a series of floor votes, and U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger rises from a chair in his Longworth Building office and begins the now-familiar trek to the House chamber.

"You run 15 minutes to the floor," Ruppersberger says as he pulls on his suit jacket, "and most of the time you lose."

He is smiling, which is key. Staying upbeat and warding off frustration are prerequisites to achieving any manner of success when you are a House freshman, in the minority party no less.

Ruppersberger, the former Baltimore County executive, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a former state legislator from Montgomery County, are among 21 House members who each day face a double whammy. Elected one year ago, they are Democrats in a body ruled by Republicans, rookies in a world in which seniority is king.

"It's tough," said former Rep. Michael Barnes, a Democrat who once held the seat that Van Hollen won in November last year. "He and Dutch are highly accomplished, highly successful guys. Dutch was a county executive and Chris was a major player in the state Senate. To come over here and be near the bottom of 435 guys, that can be a very frustrating experience."

The Marylanders' few triumphs have resulted from persistence -- from identifying a worthy issue, researching it and making pests of themselves until they get results.

It was this approach that helped Ruppersberger create a popular program last month allowing people to donate their frequent flier miles so that troops can get free flights home while on leave. In phone calls and letters, Ruppersberger and his staff badgered several airlines into participating.

But Ruppersberger's and Van Hollen's significant legislative victories can be counted on one hand.

Even their offices reflect their freshman status. Van Hollen's looks out on a highway -- freshmen don't usually get Capitol views.

Ruppersberger's office, formerly occupied by Rep. Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, was one of three offices in Longworth in which trace anthrax was found in 2001. The offices were sealed off from the rest of the building while cleanup was done. Ruppersberger, who was sworn in in January, says cheerfully: "It's all cleaned up now."

Neither Ruppersberger nor Van Hollen was accustomed to toiling in the minority. "I was in the majority my whole career," said Ruppersberger, also a former county councilman and prosecutor. "As county executive if I see trash in the street I make a call and it's gone. So this is a transition."

Ruppersberger, 57, was a varsity lacrosse player and a fraternity brother at the University of Maryland, College Park -- and it shows. His gregarious personality has proven an asset in an institution where relationships with fellow members count at least as much as legislative expertise.

In January, his fellow Democratic freshmen elected him class representative on the Democratic Steering Committee, which parcels out committee assignments.

He has since sought to build relationships with Republicans, whose House majority entitles them to all committee chairmanships and the office of speaker. While some Democrats openly criticize President Bush and the GOP leadership, the moderate Ruppersberger has avoided sounding shrill. "If I attack Bush personally [on Iraq policy], how does that help our troops?" he says.

Three times a week, Ruppersberger works out with Republicans and Democrats in the House gym (his activities have been curtailed recently by shoulder replacement surgery that left his arm in a sling). He also attends regular prayer breakfasts more commonly frequented by GOP members than by those in his party.

"Some people perceive it as a fundamentalist Christian group, but it's not that way," says Ruppersberger, a Methodist. "It's just people talking to people."

Last month, he was greeting soldiers flown to Baltimore-Washington International Airport by the Department of Defense en route to catch connecting flights to their hometowns. He became angry when he learned how much they had to pay to get home. After prodding airlines -- he appealed to their patriotism and marketing sense -- a Web site was established through which more than 10 million miles have been donated to soldiers.

Van Hollen, too, has celebrated some early successes.

In September, the House passed his amendment blocking a Bush administration plan that would have made it easier for private companies to vie for government jobs. Unions representing federal workers -- many of whom reside in Van Hollen's suburban Washington district -- say the plan would make it too hard for government employees to compete.

But Van Hollen, 43, a career diplomat's son with a reputation for studiousness and tenacity, has also been repeatedly rebuffed by the GOP. On more than a handful of occasions, he has marched to the House Rules Committee and sought permission to bring up amendments on the floor.

Mostly, he has been denied.

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