NC election winners get a Capitol crash course, with some surprises along the way

Khadejeh Nikouyeh/knikouyeh@charlotteobserver.com

Newly elected Rep. Jeff Jackson said walking into the U.S. Capitol last week was like being “in a wax museum come to life.”

Jackson spent the majority of the week in Washington for freshman orientation. He had only visited the Capitol once before — during his campaign.

“I’ve followed national politics for years but most of the people I’m meeting now are people I’ve only known as two-dimensional characters in our national political drama, and my image of them is built from snippets on TV and quotes in the newspaper and tweets and ads,” Jackson said. “To be suddenly shaking hands with them as they welcomed me into the building we will work in together was pretty strange.”

He added that all of them were “exceptionally nice.”

North Carolina voters promoted five of their state senators to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives: Jackson, Wiley Nickel, Don Davis, Valerie Foushee and Chuck Edwards. The latter two did not answer phone calls seeking comment for this article.

All five of them posted photos on social media from their week at the Capitol. The photos showed them smiling with the nation’s leaders. Nickel posted a photo of himself standing on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office balcony that overlooks the National Mall. A group photo on the building’s steps showed the five of them near one another for the official freshman class photo.

“Every time I see the Capitol it brings chills to me and a strong sense of pride in our country,” Davis said. “To step foot into the chamber, which we had an opportunity to do, it reassured me of the voices of the American people and the significance of our history. It inspired me even more so to treasure the responsibility granted to me by the people of Eastern North Carolina.”

For the Democrats, which includes everyone but Edwards, their week began with a dinner hosted by Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland.

But the following morning the real work began: orientation.

Technology, security and coffee

Nickel, who will represent parts of the Triangle, said he and members of his staff were immediately handed encrypted cell phones, laptops and tablets.

Jackson, a tech whiz, had to stifle a laugh when he was asked if he needed help with his.

“When they gave me my laptop at orientation, they looked me dead in the eye and asked with total sincerity if I needed help turning it on,” Jackson said. “I held up the laptop and said, ‘Laptop, turn on.’”

Some moments were less than funny. Security was tight at the Capitol. More so than normal.

Not only was orientation beginning, but it was Congress’ first week back in session since a man had broken into Pelosi’s San Francisco home looking for her but instead finding her husband and striking him over the head with a hammer.

Davis said the level of security surprised him.

“Capitol Police were all over the place,” he said. “Outside the hotel. Inside the hotel for wherever we moved to make sure, obviously, that they were providing the appropriate level of security.”

Nickel said guards were posted outside their hotel rooms.

And one of the first meetings during orientation was about security.

“When we got to D.C. we got a briefing about steps that will now be taken to protect us and our family, and frankly, it was more than I expected,” Jackson said. “I’ve never been a part of conversations like that before — certainly not in the legislature.”

The freshmen also received thick binders with checklists on everything they need to do to set up a congressional office before being sworn in in January.

Jackson said a website also contains the to-do lists, and every bullet point has a drop-down menu with its own to-do list.

If the freshmen felt tired by all of that, officials made sure to offer a liquid solution.

“I’ve never been offered so much coffee in my life,” Jackson said of orientation. “Every meeting. The whole place seems to run on it.”

Jackson tries to only drink a cup a day, so he quickly learned how to politely decline it.

But doughnuts were another story.

The U.S. Capitol is home to a Dunkin’ Donuts (if you know where to look) but Jackson said he hasn’t found it because every room he walked into had doughnuts at the ready.

“My doughnut consumption did spike,” Jackson said. “In fairness, there were bagels too, but if there is a plate of doughnuts and bagels, I’m not going to notice the bagels.”

Living in DC

There was an optional set of orientation meetings for spouses. Jackson said his wife, Marisa, attended and made new friends who kept things bipartisan. She learned tips and tricks for spouses moving to Washington or not.

“I think there was a lot of commiseration about the difficulty of finding a place to live,” Jackson said.

He hasn’t decided where he will live but he does know it will be “shockingly expensive.”

WTOP reported in May that the average price of a one-bedroom apartment in D.C. is $2,400.

Nickel said he “literally” has no time to look for a place and enlisted his mother to do that job for him.

Where members of Congress stay in Washington can be eclectic. Three-term Rep. Ted Budd, now elected as a senator, slept on a Murphy bed in his office.

Davis said he doesn’t plan to do that, but wants to stay somewhere close by so he can be effective in Congress.

Jackson also agreed he will not be sleeping in the office.

“I don’t want to ask my staff to go home when it’s time for me to go to sleep,” Jackson said.

Jackson also decided against moving his family to Washington.

“This is where their lives are,” Jackson said, of his home near Charlotte. “I’m not going to be even more disruptive to their lives than this is inevitably going to be.”

Jackson said he is worried about the separation from his family while he serves.

He learned from another member, who he did not name but said has served a decade in Congress, that every week he writes his children a letter about what he will do in Washington. The eldest child went off to college and requested the lawmaker continue the tradition.

Jackson said he and his wife decided that they would adopt this for their own family.

Historic moment

The freshman also witnessed an historic moment in the nation’s history. On Thursday, they were given 15 minutes’ notice to get to the chamber where Pelosi was about to announce that while she planned to remain in the House she would not take on a leadership role in the 118th Congress.

“That was not something I expected to personally witness my first week in D.C.,” Jackson said. “It was pretty interesting. There were only 25 or so Republicans there, and it was interesting to see them do the internal calculus of, when do I clap and when do I not clap? It’s kind of like the stuff you see during the State of the Union address.”

Davis stood near Rep. G.K. Butterfield on the floor and said listening to Pelosi talk about passing the baton to the next group of Democratic leaders reminded him of the message Butterfield gave him when he chose to run. He said he realized that both Pelosi and Butterfield had given their all and were now stepping aside to allow someone else to do the work.

Davis will succeed Butterfield following his retirement next year in representing the 1st Congressional District in North Carolina’s northeast.

Nickel knows the Capitol more than his colleagues due his work under California’s Reps. Dianne Feinstein and Dennis Cardoza, the latter now retired.

“I’m really excited about being there for the swearing in,” Nickel said. “We heard that my two children, seven and 10, will get to join me. My wife, she’ll be in the gallery. But Dennis Cardoza is going to stand next to me. He’s allowed to be on the floor.”

Having worked there will help with a lesson the new members need to learn: that the Capitol building is a giant maze. It’s pretty easy to figure out how to cross from the House chamber through Statuary Hall to the Rotunda and toward the Senate. But once they get onto the other floors and into the underground tunnels that connect various buildings that make up the Capitol complex, it gets confusing.

Davis said he asked several tour guides and officers how to get around and one finally gave him the advice that you have to keep getting lost until you figure it out.

“There are multiple ways to get from point A to point B,” Jackson said. “It’s never obvious: ‘go straight and then take a left.’ There are all these ways to get to everywhere you’re going and there are multiple occasions where I had to stop and ask for directions.”

And Jackson also learned why the underground tunnels are helpful.

He bought his winter coat in college.

Twenty years ago.

And it was used.

But after experiencing his first week in Washington’s fall, Jackson decided it’s time for an upgrade.

“It was bitter cold,” Jackson said.

The freshmen got to go back home for Thanksgiving but return the week of Nov. 28 for another set of orientation briefings.

Jackson said he’s feeling good about the process, with his energy and his focus at high-levels but he knows he’s in the honeymoon phase. He says to check back with him in a week.

“If I’m still on one cup of coffee a day, we’ll call that a personal victory,” Jackson said.

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