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Tough issues await Huffman as he heads off to Congress

Democratic Congressman-elect Jared Huffman runs errands in his hometown of San Rafael.

Kent Porter / Press Democrat
Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 8:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2013 at 9:40 a.m.

Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman takes his seat Thursday in the 113th Congress, facing big issues — budget cutbacks, the national debt limit and gun control — with a remarkably diverse freshman class and, he believes, a will to get things done.

“There's a real desire to try harder and work together,” Huffman said in a recent interview at his home in the hills of San Rafael.

A former environmental attorney who is coming off six years in the state Assembly, Huffman, 48, is joining a body widely demeaned by the public and noted for lack of accomplishment.

Congress got an 18 percent approval rating in the Gallup Poll two weeks ago, an improvement from the record-low 10 percent posted twice earlier this year but still far below the 33 percent average rating since 1974.

The exiting Congress, characterized by partisan gridlock, was poised to become the least productive on record, passing 219 bills as of Friday, compared with 383 bills approved by the previous Congress.

But Huffman, who is courtroom- and campaign-trail-smooth of speech and admits to a streak of optimism, believes that his 84-member freshman class represents a break from the older, dysfunctional order.

The freshmen of 2011 “wanted to burn down the House and grind the institution to a halt” — and they succeeded, said Huffman, who represents the new 2nd Congressional District, stretching 350 miles along Highway 101 from Sausalito to Crescent City.

Having met all the freshmen of 2013 at three orientation sessions, Huffman said the 48 new Democrats and 35 Republicans intend to do better. “The mantra is: Solve problems and get things done,” he said.

On gun control, a pressing issue in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings, Huffman said Congress has a chance to do “something sensible” after years of avoiding the issue.

“You've even got Republicans saying it's time to engage on this,” he said, acknowledging that Democrats and President Barack Obama earlier had backed off gun control.

Huffman said he supports a federal ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, the latter a measure Democrats intend to introduce Thursday.

“Those are for combat,” Huffman said, calling them unneeded for hunting or personal protection.

Hailed for its diversity, the 48 freshman Democrats include 16 women and 13 minority men, accounting for 60 percent of the party's newcomers and making white men a minority of the caucus for the first time in history.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco said in November that the Democratic Caucus in 2013 would have 61 women, 43 blacks, 26 Latinos, 11 Asians and one bisexual and five gay members.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said diversity among Democrats “is important and is truly reflective of the American people.”

“Members of Congress working together with different backgrounds and life experiences helps bring good ideas to the table,” said Thompson, who represents Santa Rosa and will be sworn in for his eighth term Thursday.

But with Republicans still in control of the House — with a 233-200 edge over Democrats — some say the new gender and ethnic mixture may make no difference.

“The minority party has no power. You might as well accept it from the beginning,” said Doug Bosco, a Santa Rosa attorney who made the same move as Huffman, from the Assembly to Congress, in 1982.

Republican committee chairmen will determine which bills get attention, and Speaker John Boehner, through the Rules Committee, will set the measures that come to a vote on the House floor.

A group of “exuberant freshmen isn't going to change that,” said Bosco, general counsel to Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

A freshman Democrat like Huffman is the “least likely” to get a bill to the floor, Bosco said, adding, “Sometimes if you have a good idea, they steal it from you.”

Nor is he convinced that a larger number of women, blacks and Latinos will change voting patterns on big issues. “I don't know that they look at war and peace any differently,” Bosco said.

Huffman, relaxing at home in a dark-blue shirt and blue jeans, admitted the scale of his move from an 80-member Assembly run by Democrats to the 435-member GOP-held House.

As a freshman in the Assembly in 2006, Huffman was named chairman of a committee, and had more than 60 bills approved during his legal limit of three terms in the Assembly.

As a minority-party rookie in the House, Huffman will be as far as possible from the seats of power, awarded primarily on the basis of seniority.

It's a big step, but one Huffman can manage, said Brian Sobel, a Petaluma political consultant. “He's a can-do person” and a “likeable guy” who will seek alliances among Democrats and Republicans.

“Yes, he's in a new world,” he said, but Huffman negotiated the “rough and tumble politics” of Sacramento.

As a House newcomer, “you make your way around, one person at a time,” Sobel said.

The new faces on the Hill, the nation's economic dilemma and the beating Republicans took at the polls in November will result “in a little milder tone in the coming Congress,” Sobel said.

The House must produce results, and the GOP is “going to have to bend,” he said. “You can't keep going down the road we're going.”

Freed from California's state legislative term limits, Huffman conceivably could match his predecessor Lynn Woolsey's 20 years in the House and still be viable in a House where the average age is 57 and the oldest current member, Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, is 89.

Huffman won't say how long he plans to serve, and will never take re-election for granted, even with Democrats accounting for half of the 415,320 registered voters in his six-county North Coast district, with Republicans and independents tied at 22 percent each.

At least until the next reapportionment, Huffman conceded his chances of re-election aren't bad.

When the 113th Congress gets sworn in Thursday, Huffman will be on the House floor with his daughter, Abby, 12, and son, Nathan, 9. Susan Huffman will be in the House gallery with the congressman's mother, Phyllis Holloway of Independence, Mo.

“I'm looking forward to it,” Abby Huffman said, anticipating “a really cool experience.”

Huffman will be paid $174,000 as a rank-and-file House member, compared with his $90,526 Assembly salary. But the seemingly large raise doesn't account for the tax-free per diem state legislators receive, amounting to about $50,000 a year.

Members of Congress get no per diem for living expenses, and Huffman said he will spend $1,700 a month on rent in Washington and do without a car there.

If Democrats regain control of the House during his tenure (they narrowed the gap to 33, down from 50, in the November election), Huffman may, as he put it, “get the things done that I want to accomplish.”

One issue that can't wait, he contends, is climate change, which was virtually invisible during the 2012 political campaign.

“We really are running out of time,” Huffman said, citing reports that Greenland's ice sheet is melting faster than climate models predicted, potentially raising the sea level from 3 feet to as much as 9 feet by the end of the century.

Huffman said he rejects the idea that the United States must choose between curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reviving the economy. Most of what needs to be done, such as research and innovation, is “good for us,” Huffman said.

More immediately, Huffman anticipates battling House Republicans who will renew their call for the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada, opening new public lands to oil drilling and resisting regulation of fracking, the process of releasing oil and natural gas from underground rocks.

“We're going to have a fight on our hands,” Huffman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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