“This freshman class is different”: How the new House progressives hit the ground running in the first 100 days
They’ve impressed their fellow colleagues and party leadership with a mix of policy and political chops that are well beyond their years in national elected office.
Somewhat lost in the drama of the 15-ballot race to elect Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker was the vibrant group of freshman progressive Democrats who were sworn in soon after to forcefully oppose his party’s legislative agenda and help theirs make the case for why voters should empower them with the majority next year.
The 16 new members, which helped the Congressional Progressive Caucus grow to its largest-ever membership this Congress, hit the ground running in the first 100 days with fresh enthusiasm and a sharp focus on the issues they campaigned on. And whether through legislation, on committees or in their communities, they’ve impressed their fellow colleagues and party leadership with a mix of policy and political chops that are well beyond their years in national elected office.
“I really do think that this freshman class is different,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said to Supercreator.” I think that the courage that they exhibit, the boldness, the independence that they’re willing to act on is really, really special.”
House Democratic Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar described the freshman as an incredible group of leaders who put people over politics in the legislation they advocate and their commitment to their constituents back home.
“They came to Washington from different parts of the the country and from different walks of life, but they are united by the common goal of making life easier for everyday Americans and protecting our democracy,” Aguilar said in a statement to Supercreator. “The future of our party is incredibly bright.”
Freshman Class President and Democratic Rep. Robert Garcia of California, the first gay immigrant elected to Congress, said arriving in Washington at a time of such intense political polarization has created purpose for the freshman to defend vulnerable communities against what they see as Republican extremism.
“I think the caucus is really united to just push back on all of the Republican bullshit. And for us, it’s kind of eye-opening just to see how much hate is on the other side against women’s choice and trans people, against the gay community, against educators,” Garcia said to Supercreator. “And so that’s been surprising. But I think every day we keep becoming even more united to really stand up for working people and stand up for the American public and that’s been great.”
Democratic Rep. Becca Balint, the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to serve in Congress for Vermont, said the support she’s received from the class has supported her personally and politically.
“I think because we came in so activated about January 6th, we have a real sense of purpose,” she said to Supercreator. “And so I think we feel these issues really, really deeply and it keeps us focused.”
The camaraderie freshman progressives share also helps them navigate the tougher aspects of the job.
Democratic Rep. Morgan McGarvey of Kentucky earlier this month lost someone he knew during a mass shooting in his hometown of Louisville. The experience, McGarvey told reporters last week, left him heartbroken for his community.
“I think that the outpouring of love and support from our class to him, it was really beautiful,” Balint said. “And it gives us the courage to keep doing this work in such a dark time. There’s a lot of darkness.”
Garcia told Supercreator that the freshmen have also been able to create meaning for themselves through their committee assignments. Several first-term progressives sit on the powerful Oversight and Accountability Committee and have aggressively characterized House Republicans of partisan overreach in a broad set of investigations, including probes into President Joe Biden’s family businesses, his son Hunter Biden’s laptop, the origins of the coronavirus, alleged anti-conservative bias by the government and the Biden administration’s border policies.
This work requires a lot of off-camera preparation even though members are recognized for just five minutes to question a witness during a hearing.
“That’s the part where you are meeting with your staff and you’re saying here are the witnesses that are coming up in Oversight,” Balint said. “Here are the witnesses that are coming — what are the issues that our constituents care deeply about and how do use [your questions] to highlight it?
Balint and Garcia credited the mentorship from Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland and Ocasio-Cortez — the top two House Oversight Democrats — and Aguilar, House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries and House Democratic Whip Katherine Clark for showing them the ropes.
“[Raskin] is somebody many of us look to because he is not just a voice of reason and clarity, but he says our job every day is to show up and make sure that we are fighting for trust and battling disinformation,” Balint said. “And he takes that really seriously and then we rise to the challenge.”
Ocasio-Cortez, who was elected to Congress in 2018 along with three other women of color who became known as “the Squad,” told Supercreator that when she first came in mentorship was hard to come by beyond a few members, including Raskin and the late former House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings.
“But I felt like I needed that. And there was so much I had to figure out on my own,” she said. “And so to have such an amazing class of freshman coming in, I just wanted to be as helpful as I could and be as supportive as I could with anything that they needed.”
In a Republican-controlled House, there are few opportunities to pass progressive policies into law. But CPC Chair Pramila Jayapal told Supercreator earlier this month that the freshman class’s fingerprints were all over the list of priorities House progressives sent to President Biden to advance through his executive authority.
“We really make it a priority to take the wisdom, the energy, the enthusiasm, the smarts of our newest members and make sure that we’re harnessing them,” Jayapal said. “They were absolutely critical to putting this list together.”
Jayapal added that almost all new members participated in the strategic planning retreat that Ilhan Omar, the group’s deputy chair, spearheaded earlier this month.
And Democratic Rep. Greg Casar of Texas, a new House progressive who serves as the caucus’s number-three member told Supercreator that part of the freshman class’s impact is because many new members were working on these issues long before they got to Congress.
While no member wants to be in the minority, the truth is that it’s easier to be unified against the party in power than it is competing policy priorities.
House Democrats are bullish on their odds of flipping the five seats they need to reclaim power next year. And if they’re successful, they’ll reassume the responsibility of governing that comes with it.
This could lead to some palpable tension as progressives attempt to push forward sweeping policy changes within an institution that favors plodding incrementalism.
But that’s a possibility for another day. For now, the vibes are copacetic and members are trusting the relationships they’re building and the lessons they’re learning now will pay dividends in the future.
“We all feel this deep, deep belief in each other that we are going to make positive changes,” Balint said. “And it may take a long time, but there is an optimism and a joy about our ability to get work done.”