When I first became a correspondent in Washington, D.C., it took me weeks just to find the Capitol Hill bathrooms. The learning curve hasn’t been so steep for a set of fresh-faced Washington politicos. Among them are a former nurse-turned-pastor behind the extension of the eviction moratorium, a sexagenarian leading the conservative response to cryptocurrency regulation and the Cuban-born face of a Biden administration shipping refugees back to sea. Meet the most diverse class in Congress history that’s already wielding outsized influence just eight months into office.
RABBLE-ROUSERS FOR THE ROAD
Just as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a political rock star upon arriving in Washington after felling an incumbent who was in power for decades, so too has 45-year-old Missouri Rep. Cori Bush since arriving in January. The former nurse, pastor and activist put an end to a 52-year St. Louis political dynasty by winning her 2020 primary against Rep. William Lacy Clay, whose father had represented the seat before him. Then, in August, Bush struck a dramatic image while camped out for three days in a sleeping bag on the steps of the Capitol to protest the expiration of the eviction moratorium — an action that recently spurred the Biden administration to relent and extend the deadline partially for another 60 days.
Unapologetically Personal Politics
Bush’s bold stance was driven by her own experience of being homeless when, in her 20s, she lived out of her car and struggled to stay warm as a mother of two young children. In 2018, Bush spoke to OZY about political candidates who ran for office while carrying significant debt, saying that her student loans humanized her with constituents and allowed her to better understand the issues they faced. “You’re fighting for people to not end up in that place,” Bush said. “It’s OK to look like the people you want to represent.” Read more on OZY.
A New Yorker’s Bipolar Bipartisanship
It’s hard to make a difference as a member of the minority party in Washington, especially in such intensely divisive times. But 36-year-old freshman New York Rep. Andrew Garbarino has managed to break from the norm. The Republican recently joined hands with Democratic staples like Rep. Jerry Nadler and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to introduce a funding bill to address health gaps for 9/11 first responders. He has also worked with Virginia liberal Rep. Abigail Spanberger on a bill to improve the federal government’s tracking of cybercrime. At the same time, Garbarino’s more than happy to take an antagonistic stance: He recently wrote to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky demanding that she produce data to justify the CDC’s recent mask mandates.
Oracle of the Midterms?
New York’s 2nd Congressional District includes Suffolk County, one of 206 “pivot counties” that swung from voting for Barack Obama in ’08 and ’12 to voting for Trump in ’16. Twenty-five of those counties flipped back to voting Democrat last year, but the 2nd District was not one of them. That means Garbarino represents a swathe of America that is still very much being fought over. Like the rest of his colleagues in the House of Representatives, Garbarino is up for reelection in 2022, and the battle for districts like his is heated — a victory for Republicans would allow them to be a major legislative thorn in Biden’s side for the remainder of his presidency.
FAMILIAR FACES, NEWFOUND POWER
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto
The U.S. senator from Nevada faces her first reelection in 2022, after stepping into the massive shoes of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and she’s playing a quietly key role in shaping the future of American education. With the surge in COVID-19 infections caused by the delta variant, the national return to school has been chaotic, as students briefly filled classrooms only to be sent home in droves. Cortez Masto, 57, is pushing to add $500 million in mental health resources as part of broader education reform amid the pandemic — a move that couldn’t be more timely.
Rep. Elise Stefanik
After dramatically ousting Liz Cheney as House Republican chair in May, the 37-year-old New Yorker is the only woman in Republican House leadership — positioning her as a potentially history-making candidate for speaker of the House. She pivoted from an aspirational, forward-thinking centrist to an unabashed Trump supporter, a shift some critics viewed as opportunistic. Regardless, her strategy proved effective, expanding her double-digit lead over Democratic challenger Tedra Cobb between 2018 and 2020. When OZY profiled her three years ago, we dubbed her the GOP’s millennial whisperer. Now she’s using her megaphone to discredit investigations into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and, most recently, to bash Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal.
She isn’t based in D.C. and she isn’t a politician. Yet there may not be anybody in America who has a greater impact on Washington these days than the director of the Atlanta-based CDC. She is only the third woman to occupy the position. And with the delta variant spooking the world, Walensky is charged with guiding the country’s response to the ongoing pandemic while also trying to rebuild the agency’s credibility after flip-flops under previous chief Robert Redfield. From recommending COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant women in April to explaining how annual boosters may not be necessary after a third jab, hers is the voice that truly matters in America’s battle against the pandemic.
Sen. Tommy Tuberville
The former Auburn University football coach found success off the gridiron in 2020, using a timely Trump endorsement to leapfrog fellow Republican Jeff Sessions and oust incumbent Democrat Doug Jones. The Alabama senator has aggressively pushed vaccine adoption as COVID-19 cases soar in his state, and he recently succeeded in getting the Senate to pass an amendment to eliminate federal funding to local governments that defund law enforcement departments. His victory could be a blueprint for Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia star running back who just announced his own Senate run, at Trump’s urging.
LIGHTLY SHAKEN, STIRRED, WITH A TWIST
A Sexagenarian Skeptic . . .
A Republican who studied animal science in college and was born a year after the Korean War ended probably wouldn’t be most people’s first pick to consult about regulating Bitcoin. Yet Cynthia Lummis, 66, has shown her cryptocurrency chops since entering Congress as Wyoming’s first female senator in January. Speaking on Fox Business, the savvy former state treasurer has at times shown tough love to digital currencies, asserting that COVID-19 spending and “big government spenders” have accelerated the rise of Bitcoin as an alternative to the U.S. dollar. “They claim to enable ‘transparency.’ Their backers talk about the ‘democratization of banking,’” she asserts. “There’s nothing ‘democratic’ or ‘transparent’ about a shady, diffuse network of online funny money.”
. . . And Surprising Crypto Cowboy?
However, Lummis has also earned respect from the cryptocurrency lovers she seeks to regulate — particularly after she suggested that everyone should hold digital assets in their retirement portfolio (advice she herself follows). Lummis has signaled her concerns about digital currencies, including the threat they pose to the American financial system’s preeminence as the bedrock of the global economy. But the senator from the Cowboy State also has some tricks up her sleeve, including suggesting that cryptocurrency farmers fleeing bans from the Chinese Communist Party should be recruited by states with sufficient energy hubs to support them, including Pennsylvania, Texas and, yes, Wyoming. “Digital assets are here to stay,” she said in a recent statement.
Biden’s Cuban Bulwark on Immigration . . .
Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas was meant to be Biden’s bulwark against criticism of the much-beleaguered agency, one that was often painted as the face of American antipathy toward asylum-seekers during the Trump years. Born in Havana to parents who fled communist rule and eventually settled in California, Mayorkas seemed poised to make progress on one of America’s thorniest issues, after a history of fighting for “Dreamers” and refugees. And indeed, arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have sharply dropped under his watch, after he issued a directive that went further than Obama-era policies in limiting deportations.
. . . And Controversial Lightning Rod?
However, Mayorkas has also attracted bipartisan charges of hypocrisy after he played on his aspirational story but later declared that Haitian and Cuban refugees who “take to the sea” would not be allowed in the United States. His liberal critics paint him as the face of the Biden approach to immigration — one that slaps “Bienvenidos” on a former Trump detention camp and calls it a victory. Meanwhile, conservatives are salivating at the political opportunity presented by Mayorkas’ apparent inconsistencies, using it to bolster an already powerful Cuban conservative movement that helped Trump dominate Biden in the always crucial swing state of Florida last year.