WASHINGTON — Four months into the 116th Congress and the record number of women in the freshman class have finally stopped getting lost in the halls, most of the time. But the new members are still getting lots of advice from more senior members — even when they're not asking for it.
Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts helped the Democrats’ campaign arm recruit women candidates to run in the 2018 midterms. A mother of three, Clark spent significant time trying to convince women to jump into the race. She was blunt about the realities of being a mom in Congress.
She texted an old photograph of her kitchen, taken during a previous campaign, to a recruit. Clark said the photo showed open peanut butter jars on the counter and a mop leaning against a box of wine.
“You’re never going to get back to the kitchen,” Clark said, but what the woman was doing was “being a role model for these children.”
The 2018 midterm election brought a record number of women – 102 – to the House of Representatives. More than half of the net 40 seats Democrats gained went to women. One member of the GOP freshman class is a woman.
Rep. Grace Meng has two young children and, like Clark, helped recruit women candidates, especially those with young kids.
The New York Democrat said she tells new members what works – and what doesn’t – regarding “how I balance the family, my spouse, my kids.” She said she makes it clear that “it’s not easy."
She has found some things that make it better, including camps for her kids when they visit in the summer.
Meng said she benefits, too, now that a surge in new mothers in Congress has made maternal advice readily available. More than 20 moms text frequently about their family issues, including sharing tips for summer camps.
"It’s really therapeutic for myself even though I’ve been here for a little bit,” she said.
Pajama party crew
Meng and Clark don't have to go far to dole out advice. Many women live in the same apartment building. They jokingly refer to it as a dorm.
Residents said Florida Rep. Lois Frankel works hard to persuade people to move into the building and acts as a “mayor” to keep a steady stream of events happening, including a recent pajama party.
At first, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., resisted Frankel’s sales pitch on the apartment. She wanted to find a place of her own. After her efforts failed, she texted Frankel.
“I was like, ‘Lois, you’re right. I need your help. Help me find a place in your building.' And she probably did a sunglasses emoji. And then within an hour, she sent me two listings. And that night ... I had an apartment in her building,” the Virginia Democrat said.
Frankel often teases Spanberger, a former undercover CIA operative, about being “a spy.” The apartment Spanberger moved into overlooks Frankel’s, so she really can watch her – or at least see if she’s home for a chat.
'You're part of a team now'
Frankel isn’t just giving advice to her fellow residents, the Florida Democrat offers her take to a variety of new members, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — whether they seek it, or not.
After Rep. Ilhan Omar made comments that some called anti-Semitic, she heard from Frankel.
“I made it clear that I didn’t like what she said,” Frankel, who is Jewish, told USA TODAY in early April, adding that she warned Minnesota’s Omar: “ ‘You have to be careful.’ ... You’re part of a team now, so whatever you say reflects back on all of us.”
"My constituents and I are concerned about anti-Semitism, we are not in the business of spreading Islamophobia," she told USA TODAY on Monday.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has become a go-to source for some of the House's most high-profile new members. The Washington Democrat has known Reps. Omar and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., for years.
Tlaib, who made history as the other first Muslim woman in Congress, has been caught up in controversies as well, including early on when she said – using profanity – that Democrats would impeach Trump.
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Jayapal said she keeps in close contact with Omar, Tlaib and others.
“Behind the scenes, you know, they do ask how should I handle this, what should I do? And I try to give what I think is the best advice, and sometimes that means sympathizing with how frustrating something may seem or how unfair something may seem but also helping them to think through what’s the best strategy to take it on,” Jayapal said.
Tlaib did not address the controversies directly but said Jayapal reminded her “I’m not alone.”
“She has taught me a lot about the challenges of maneuvering in this institution, and her advice has been instrumental,” Tlaib said.
Omar’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.
Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell has known Tlaib for a long time. She said she offered support to Tlaib after her impeachment comment drew fire.
“She calls me mama,” Dingell said. “I talk to Rashida a lot."
'Follow your heart'
Freshman Rep. Veronica Escobar of Texas went to Jayapal for advice when she had to make a tough vote on reopening the government after a prolonged shutdown that resulted from a dispute over Trump's border security demands. Escobar “was really struggling” on whether to vote for a bipartisan funding bill that included money for a border wall and immigration enforcement.
Escobar’s district sits on the southern border with Mexico. She was concerned that more spending on enforcement would reinforce the “narrative that the border is unsafe,” but she wanted “to support compromise and bipartisanship.” Jayapal “gave me a very like 'you’ve got to follow your heart' kind of message,” Escobar said. Escobar voted against the funding bill.
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Michigan Rep. Haley Stevens “attached” herself to Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, chairwoman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Stevens said Johnson coached her on how to get selected for the committee. After being assigned to the panel, Stevens became chairwoman of a subcommittee.
“The congresswoman has been very beneficial for me in terms of learning how to hold the gavel, learning how to hold a committee hearing,” Stevens said.
West Virginia Rep. Carol Miller is the only freshman woman on the GOP side. “So who do I turn to?" she asked. "Everybody.”
“I ask men and women questions, depending upon the issue, and they’ve all been very supportive, very nice,” she said.
Miller has had a longtime relationship with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, also of West Virginia. In a "real girl moment," Capito put Miller’s congressional pin on her while she was surrounded by the women of her family.
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Adjusting to DC life
The interactions between new and experienced members aren’t all business. Many freshmen seek advice on adjusting to life in the nation's capital, which can be expensive.
Ayanna Pressley, a freshman Democrat from Massachusetts, gets extra help from the Congressional Black Caucus. California Rep. Karen Bass, the chairwoman, set up a mentoring program for newbies.
Pressley was teamed with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a three-term Democrat from New Jersey who was the first black woman to represent her state in Congress. Pressley is the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House.
“A lot of it is personal support," Pressley said. "This is a major transition and so it’s tremendous to have people who know that walk, who have had some time here."
In January, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, Dingell gave all 102 women four scarves, so they always have something to wear for themed days. She detailed what each color was for in a letter to colleagues: "A red scarf for ‘go red’ for (heart)️ disease and for ‘Wear Red Wednesdays’ for the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. A pink scarf for breast cancer. A purple scarf for domestic violence and reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. An orange scarf for gun violence to draw attention to victims and is a color usually used to evoke safety.”
Dingell said the scarves brought comfort to her after her husband, longtime Congressman John Dingell, died in February.
“On one of the saddest days of my lives, seeing my friends with the scarves was a symbol of support that meant more than one can put in words,” she said.
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Contributing: Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY, and Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In a shared DC apartment building, freshmen women in Congress find mentorship