WASHINGTON – Republican Rep. Tom Emmer wants to launch one of the best offices for customer service in the whole state of Minnesota. He wants to cast votes to “empower the people.” And he wants the GOP House leadership to know that he will never surprise them or embarrass them, that he is here to be a collaborator at the behest of his constituents.
But first, his staff needs to figure out how to use the voice mail.
For a freshman, the first day of a new Congress is much like the first day of school: There are usually beaming parents around with cameras; there are new office supplies and tours to figure out how to get around, and often the all-knowing, more-senior kids stop by and offer to help out in case of trouble.
Tuesday’s normal chaos wasn’t helped by a bigger-than-predicted Beltway snowstorm that snarled roads and public transit.
It took the woman who answers Emmer’s phone five hours to get to the office. Emmer’s senior adviser, Robert Boland, was stuck in traffic for more than two hours coming in from the Virginia suburbs. And Emmer’s 19-year-old daughter, Katie, left her ID behind and wasn’t sure she’d make it to her dad’s swearing-in.
Phones jingled constantly. By late morning, lobbyists from all over were trickling in to the office’s open house trying to find someone to palm a business card to amid the confusion, the uneaten pastries, and the unmarked desks stacked with boxes and file folders.
A whole new dynamic
The day also ushered in a new political dynamic that will frame the next two years both for Emmer, who represents Minnesota’s Sixth District, and the rest of state’s congressional delegation. Republicans in last year’s midterm elections consolidated their hold on power in Congress, wresting control of the Senate from Democrats for the first time since 2007 and bulking up their majority in the House.
This new Republican bloc on Capitol Hill will soon be tested on whether it can put together deals and solve problems with a Democratic president. It also leaves Minnesota’s two Democratic senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, to find new roles in the minority.
On Monday, Emmer urged his caucus to propose solutions to problems.
“You got to be for something. You gotta stop being against everything,” he said of the Republican majority in both chambers. “You got to put out solutions. You got to show people the solutions you’ve advanced actually will improve their lives.”
At a reception honoring Emmer on Tuesday, fellow Minnesota Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen said: “I think the new Congress is exciting. It will be breath of fresh air.”
‘My district has a need’
Emmer starts his congressional life in an out-of-the-way, still-bare office freshly painted a light brown; it’s far from the main elevators that serve more senior members. He has been assigned to the Agriculture and Foreign Affairs committees, but he’s still hoping for Transportation and Infrastructure, in order to bring federal dollars for road projects back to his district, which runs from the north metro suburbs to St. Cloud.
And he’s relying on relationship-building to get him where he needs to be. “My job over the next few months is not only to get up to speed, but to continue the process of building the relationships with people I’m going to be working with over the next two years in this Congress … so they know who I am,” he said. “My district has a need. We need your help. That’s really what I’m going to be doing.
He’ll not only have to adjust to a new political climate, but also to the Washington version of winter. A day when the temperature dipped to 29 degrees triggered an oppressive level of heat pumping into the top floor of the Cannon House Office Building. The newest congressman from Minnesota cracked open a towering window to cool himself off, brushing aside the snow dusting the windowsill.
Emmer, 53, a Delano lawyer who was narrowly defeated by Mark Dayton in the 2010 race for governor, now fills the vacancy left by Rep. Michele Bachmann — a one-time presidential candidate who declined to run for the House again last year.
Bachmann was a larger-than-life personality and often an outspoken thorn in the side of the GOP caucus. She left office after eight years with few legislative accomplishments to her name, but with a national following of people who appreciated her fiery voice. Emmer calls Bachmann a friend, but said he is likely to be more low key.
Paulsen, who served with Emmer in the Minnesota House, where Emmer spent six years, said he is excited to have Emmer in Washington. “I’ve seen him in action,” Paulsen said. “I know he will hit the ground running.”
Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Collin Peterson — being sworn in for their eighth and 13th terms, respectively, did not have any family members around on Tuesday, so they donated their extra House gallery tickets to Emmer so his family could watch. Emmer and his wife, Jacquie, have six sons in addition to their daughter.
“We’re all so excited for my dad,” said Katie Emmer, who said she has loved her first trip to Washington so much that she is mulling going to college here. “It’s cool to see him fall and get back up.”