Members of Congress are commonly compared to pigs. It's rarer to seethem in the flesh with curly pink tails attached to their bottoms.But, late one recent Saturday in Louisville, Kentucky, freshmanRepresentative John Yarmuth worked a room dressed as a hog--of thesinging, dancing cowboy variety. As he gladhanded his way through agroup of professionals nattily dressed in "cocktail attire,"Yarmuth stood out with his sheepskin chaps and ten-gallon hat, notto mention his tail. He had just come from backstage after acharity gala's headline event--a musical-theater revue featuringlocal celebrities. But, before he could soak up accolades for hisrendition of "Pardon Me, Buckaroo," constituents began grilling himabout Iraq.
It's not hard to understand why the talk got so heavy so quick. Backin November, Yarmuth and his fellow Democratic challengersleveraged frustration over the war into a congressional majority.But, far from spending their time presiding over a bold reversal ofU.S. foreign policy, Yarmuth and the freshmen find themselves stillelectioneering. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, some Democraticfreshmen are enmeshed in the exact same contests they supposedlyended in November: Half-a-dozen ousted GOP congressmen are talkingseriously about running to take their seats back, and two havealready filed campaign papers. Out in California, a NationalRepublican Congressional Committee flyer attacking first-termDemocrat Jerry McNerney appeared in voters' mailboxes the very dayhe took office. In the Palm Beach district formerly represented byMark Foley--which rankles in Republican minds as the single mostcruelly stolen seat of last year--four of freshman Democrat TimMahoney's prospective GOP opponents have already held a candidates'forum.
OK, House members are career candidates. But this year, theattendant indignities are extra severe. Hell-bent on locking intheir majority, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee(dccc) is requiring 24 freshmen who won by narrow margins to raisebetween $600,000 and $1 million by June 30. Yarmuth's benchmark is$600,000: To put that number in perspective, it's nearly half ofwhat he raised (besides money he donated to himself) during hisentire '06 campaign.
The sense of being perpetually trapped in the 2006 election cycleextends to the man who ran it. While Democratic Caucus Chair RahmEmanuel is no longer officially head of the dccc, "it's hard forhim to cut ties and walk away," as one aide to a freshman Democratputs it. "My understanding is," says another aide to a freshman,"the way it's going to work is that Rahm's going to be taking careof all the members who are in tough districts, and [new dccc head]Chris Van Hollen's going to be taking care of the challengers andopen-seaters. " Emanuel's advice to the freshmen ranges from thebroad (how to legislate for your district) to the narrow (don't goon "Colbert"). "He's always harping on different members aboutgetting out in the media," says one aide.
Even in casual conversation, this class frequently calls itself the"Majority Makers" or the "Change Agents," grandiloquent titles thathelp explain why peripatetic campaigning would feel less like theold stumping thrill and more like hell. Emanuel and the dccc areurging them to spend as little time as possible inside the Beltwayto emphasize their local accessibility. "You almost feel likeyou're on a business trip every week," explains Yarmuth, who, whenin Washington, crashes in a Tenleytown apartment he shares with his23-year-old son, an intern on the House Science Committee. He showsme his BlackBerry for a Monday he spent back home: breakfast ateight to honor black veterans and his district's three survivingTuskegee Airmen, all of whom were too frail to make it; a laborrally; a meeting with mass-transit advocates (they didn't show up);a two-hour confab with the mayor; a date with an autism nonprofit;a meeting with the Kentucky Commission on Military Affairs; acall-in to a radio show; and, finally, a mayor's "CommunityConversation" event. "I never stopped, I never ate," Yarmuth says.
For his part, Mahoney moved out of Foley's old offices in governmenthigh- rises and opened a retail storefront on a busy square inStuart, Florida, with his own desk in the front window. Somegregarious freshmen have launched a program called "Congress atYour Corner," where they hang out at local malls or grocery stores.This can prove to be a hit--New York's Kirsten Gillibrand at aPrice Chopper elicited a constituent's happy response that "this iswhat America is all about"--or a miss: When a dashinglyfedora-topped McNerney set up shop at a Pleasanton, California,Safeway, a reporter noted that "few shoppers seized theopportunity" to chat, and aides were dispatched to the checkoutlines to bring people over.
Sitting with me in a darkened school cafeteria after an educationsummit, Yarmuth waxes genuinely enthusiastic about the localelement of his job. He's working hard with Indiana freshman BaronHill to solve a traffic nightmare around the Ohio River calledSpaghetti Junction. But he also knows he was sent to Washington todo more than conduct an unending battle for voters' affections. "Wewere sent on a mission," he says. His constituents haven'tforgotten: He estimates he hears more, and more urgent, pleas toget the country out of Iraq now than he did during his campaign.But it's turned out his caucus is more fractured than hisconstituents are. And members of the Democratic leadership--Emanuel in particular--are wary of a hard charge on Iraq, hoping theGOP will keep hanging itself with the issue through 2008. That'snot what a Change Agent wants to hear. "All of us thought, 'We canbe one of fifteen seats that change the country,'" Yarmuth tellsme. "It's totally frustrating."