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A dose of diversity in freshman class could alter Congress

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 4, 2005


One is a former welfare mother. Another fled Cuba at age 15 and ended up in Florida foster homes. A third is the son of a goat herder who excelled at Harvard. Then there's the mother of twin toddlers who says she can find a crayon in her purse more easily than a pen.

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All will be settling in among the marble, mahogany, and crystal of Capitol Hill this week as members of one of the most diverse classes of incoming lawmakers in US history.

The class of 2005 also happens to be the smallest incoming House class since 1989, with only 40 freshmen casting votes. But the newcomers in both houses could produce more than their share of individual standouts, especially among minorities. Many come with solid records of working across the aisle, even in highly polarized state legislatures.

Notably, the US senate has had only four African-American and three Hispanic members throughout its history. Now it's adding three minorities in one class. That's "really distinctive," says Senate associate historian Donald Ritchie.

The increasing diversity, however, is counterbalanced by another trend: Many of the new faces in the 109th Congress look like the old ones. Six of the nine incoming US senators already served in the US House of Representatives. On the House side, where incumbents held on to more than 90 percent of the 435 seats, three former members are returning, and four newcomers are the sons of former members.

The size of the class of 2005 may also mean it doesn't have the critical mass or the mandate of the big "Watergate babies" of 1975 or the "Republican Revolution" class of 1995, both of which led to sweeping institutional reforms. "As a Watergate baby, my class was elected with the expectation that it would not just accept the government as it is," says Philip Sharp, a former US representative from Indiana and director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. "This group of freshmen doesn't exhibit this solidarity as a class, but it could develop."

Big names and big expectations

But what the freshman class lacks in numbers it may make up for in star power. So far, the most heralded newcomer is Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois, who shot to prominence after an eloquent keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Tagged early by the media as the new face of the Democratic Party, Mr. Obama describes himself as "more overexposed than Paris Hilton" - a status he and his staff are playing down whenever possible. Like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D) of New York - the most overexposed freshman of the 108th Congress - he starts with a big ($1.9 million) book deal and huge expectations.

"Mainstream commentators expressed surprise and genuine hope that my victory signaled a broader change in our racial politics," he writes in the new edition of his bestselling "Dreams from My Father." The son of a Kenyan herder and Kansas-born mother, Obama will be only the fifth African-American in the US Senate, two of whom served during Reconstruction. At Harvard Law School, he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and has served in the Illinois state Senate since 1997. His Swahili name, Barack, means "blessed."

In addition, the Senate freshman class includes two Hispanics, Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado and Mel Martinez (R) of Florida. Mr. Martinez describes himself as the first US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to have once been homeless. After fleeing communist Cuba as a teenager and growing up in foster homes in Florida, he practiced law and became active in the Cuban expatriate community. In 2001, President Bush tapped him for the cabinet and, later, urged him to run for an open Senate seat in Florida.