High Stakes for House Freshmen: The Office Lottery

WASHINGTON — Colin Allred of Texas brought his pink quartz from the campaign trail. Sharice Davids of Kansas dropped to the floor for a lightning round of push-ups.

And Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, in her lucky jeans, paused to rub a colleague’s bald head for an extra boost of support. (“He’s got a lucky head,” she said later of Max Rose of New York.)

Of everything the 85 newly elected representatives had endured in the last two weeks of congressional orientation — welcoming parties, the maze of Capitol Hill tunnels, leadership elections — the lottery on Friday had perhaps the highest stakes.

Who gets the best office?

Forget coveted committee assignments and leadership positions. The concern of the hour was over who could land a picturesque view, or a spacious lobby to woo colleagues and constituents alike. Not to mention the quickest commute to votes or, more important, the Dunkin’ Donuts in the basement of the Longworth House Building.

And since incumbent lawmakers had already selected their sanctuaries, who would get stuck with the scraps of the scraps?

“You don’t want to be in a dungeon where constituents can’t find you,” said Veronica Escobar of Texas. “It’s a little nerve-racking.”

As is customary, each incoming representative lined up alphabetically to draw a number to determine the order in which they would select offices. A better number meant better options.

And with William M. Weidemeyer, the superintendent of House office buildings, encouraging “various gyrations, dances and visible praying” for extra luck — nothing was too much to appease the lottery gods. As he acknowledged later, this particularly large and young freshman class brought additional enthusiasm to a congressional ritual.

“I was at the edge of my seat,” said Dr. Kim Schrier, the representative-elect from Washington. Before drawing, she announced to the room that she would be channeling her 10-year-old son and flossed (the popular dance move, not the dental procedure).

Over a raucous 45 minutes, the new members cheered, groaned and heckled as each person stepped forward to a mahogany box filled with chips. Standing ovations were granted to Ben Cline of Virginia, who snatched the first pick, and Mark E. Green of Tennessee, who ruefully took the last.

“That’s how we do it in Detroit!” Rashida Tlaib shouted as she jumped up and down, celebrating her selection — eighth — with her staff.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York offered a “sana, sana,” a typical Spanish rhyme to soothe children, before drawing the number 40. Andy Kim of New Jersey wore a pendant of a four-leaf clover around his neck. He and his wife each wore one when he was a civilian adviser in Afghanistan.

“It didn’t seem to help too much this time,” he said after picking 65. “Maybe I would have drawn a worse number if I wasn’t wearing it.”

Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of Florida approached with a phone in each hand, video chatting with her husband and son as she made her selection. Others cajoled wives or staff members into closing their eyes and fishing for a chip instead.

“She just got fired,” one person joked as a chagrined aide rushed to the back of the room after pulling one of the last numbers.

Once the lottery was over, members and their aides scattered to survey the available offices one last time, empty placards on the wall and abandoned chairs and lamps indicating which were up for grabs.

Some, like Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Escobar, let staff members — the ones most likely to be confined to an office every day — dictate their top choices. Others, like Dr. Schrier, had a list of criteria: good square footage, decent lighting, nice windows and blue carpet that did not need to be replaced.

“I’m going to pick a room in Longworth,” said Katie Porter of California, naming one of the two House buildings with vacancies. “I want to be in the same building as the Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Hours later, they returned with crumpled papers. Staff members updated Excel sheets, using red font to mark the chosen offices, while others scratched out lists jotted down in the margins of floor plans.

Applause broke out once more for Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota, who opted to take over the same suite his father, Tom, occupied for more than four decades.

And Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to represent Massachusetts, repeatedly reminded her colleagues of the bigger perspective beyond the inevitable heartache of a less than ideal office.

“You’re still in Congress,” she shouted to her colleagues as they playfully grimaced over low number selections. “You’re still in Congress.”


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