Friday, June 08, 2007

"House Rules"--Read It and Weep


Freshman congressman Joe Courtney, elected by a margin of 83 votes, is learning that the first requirement of power is self-preservation.

When Joe Courtney, small-town Connecticut lawyer, knocked off a Republican incumbent in the closest 2006 congressional race in the country -- a margin of 83 votes out of more than 242,000 ballots cast -- he won more than a seat in the House of Representatives. He earned an ironic nickname: Landslide Joe. While in Washington, Landslide Joe stays in nearby Capitol Hill for a variety of reasons, among which is that he has no car in the city. He blew the engine of his old minivan back in Connecticut during the campaign, and he hasn't gotten around to replacing it. Not a fan of paying for cabs, he generally walks to places.

But even if he had a limousine, the Democratic freshman congressman's instinct for self-preservation would guarantee he didn't stray far. If not in his office or at the Capitol doing official business, he is regularly raising campaign money a few blocks away. His euphoria over making it to Congress has already been tempered by the recognition that his razor-thin 2006 victory reflects at once his own vulnerability and the fragility of his party's new congressional control.

It's not just that Courtney is a self-described "Irish fatalist." His career underscores the reality of national politics in an era where the major parties are stuck in bitter parity. Any slight advantage is hard won and easily lost. To even dream of staying in power takes a constant stream of campaign contributions, so that compiling legislative achievements and "representing constituents" must compete on a congressman's to-do list with never-ending fundraising, especially for a first-termer such as Courtney. Add to that the fickle nature of Connecticut voters, and you can understand when Courtney admits to running scared in politics. "You can't count on much," he says.

WITH DARKNESS FALLING ON A COLD WINTER NIGHT, COURTNEY IS FINALLY TRUDGING HOME. He lives alone in a small Washington basement apartment. It is about a 10-minute walk from his Capitol Hill office -- past the Library of Congress and around the corner from the Supreme Court, points of reference that, as he notes, make his abode sound undeservingly upscale. The front door has bars on it, and he's having difficulty getting his key in the lock because the light around the door is lousy. The place -- for which he pays $1,350 a month in rent -- is a cross between drab university housing and an economy motel room. One of its walls is made of red brick that, apparently, no one got around to drywalling.

There are only a few furnishings: a bed, a small couch, a chair for a solitary visitor, a TV, a tiny table. The table is covered with books, most of them about Iraq and national security. Courtney doesn't have a big staff to do prodigious research as some of the senior members do, which means that, like an average citizen, he must scour newspapers and other publications to keep up to date on the issues. He tosses his overcoat on the little couch. Mostly he views this ascetic place as a way station in which to shower and shave, decompress and crash for a few hours, before rushing back to his office by 7:15 the next morning.

"I didn't clean up," he says to me. Khakis and a couple of worn shirts are strewn on his unmade bed. Two pairs of athletic shoes, an unopened box of Titleist golf balls and a blue folder that he received months ago during freshmen orientation are lying askew on the floor. His four suits stand like little sentries at attention in a closet.

He turns to an aide, who thinks the place looks lonely, even depressing. "It's functional," Courtney says, as if reading his mind. "All you need."

Courtney could have considered rooming with other congressmen, as some representatives do in the interests of saving money and enjoying a little camaraderie. But a friend and former Connecticut congressman named Toby Moffett had given him some advice before he entered office: Get your own place and space -- you'll welcome the opportunity to be alone. At the end of a long day of chattering lobbyists and cacophonous committee meetings, of impassioned rants and heartbreaking pleas, it's sometimes a luxury, Courtney says, to come back to this hovel and hear no human voice at all. "Quiet," he says, investing the word with a kind of dreaminess.

He lives about 10 blocks from his Connecticut congressional colleague Rosa DeLauro if he ever needs to talk to a friend. And, generally on Tuesday nights, DeLauro hosts a private, informal get-together for fellow Democratic representatives ("an off-the record gathering," Courtney happily notes).

But the romanticized era of nightly congressional poker games, of friendships and political alliances forged around Scotch and stogies, is long gone, Courtney realizes. The day-and-night political demands on the modern representative, notably the imperative to raise money, leave less time than ever for collegial activities. Sometimes he'll slip out in the evenings to meet a group who might be able to help him in his next campaign. Other nights he is just another freshman studying policy and keeping an eye on his district's political maneuverings.

"You have homework," Courtney says. "There're things to read to get ready for committee meetings. You have to get ready for the weekend back in your district . . . You're on your BlackBerry. You have to make phone calls . . . The pace is like a freight train's."

Slacking off would be career suicide. Courtney must prove himself to his 2nd District constituents in eastern Connecticut, but he must also set aside enough time to raise funds for a new campaign that has already begun. The margin for mistakes on either front is small for a freshman. Not long after arriving in Washington, Courtney and his staff are fearful of committing the errors that often plague callow freshmen -- either failing to push the right people hard enough for attention, or pushing the wrong people too hard. He and his staff have had no shortage of worries: How long would it take him to learn the arcane labyrinth of the legislative process? How should he try to forge alliances with the relatively few members who hold genuine power in the House? How long until Courtney knew the various chairmen's likes, dislikes, quirks -- how long till he knew what moved them or where his interests converged with theirs? What did he, as a mere freshman, have to bargain with?

Uncertainties hovered. How hard would his separation from his wife and two children prove to be? Could he find the time to raise the necessary $2 million to $3 million needed for the 2008 campaign without compromising the job he had just won? The questions turned on a central quandary: How do you survive here?

COURTNEY DOES NOT LOOK LIKE A POLITICAL NATURAL. At 54, he is balding, slight and 5-foot-9. He speaks in a soft tenor, as opposed to the mellifluous bass of the archetypal pol. Even his most fervent supporters agree he does not radiate charisma. But he wears well on people, which is perhaps his biggest strength. Even his 2006 Republican rival, the former congressman Rob Simmons, says, "He's a very nice guy, very easy to be around." Courtney can perform that daunting feat of all skilled politicians: listening several minutes straight to a constituent without ever interrupting or looking bored. He developed a reputation as a mild-mannered, congenial conciliator during his state legislative days, when a Connecticut magazine cited him as the Democrat most admired by Republican legislators. Nonetheless, his future is at risk in a swing district that, while it almost always votes Democratic in presidential contests, has shown a streak of independence in turning legislative races into nail-biting contests.

Courtney's narrow win guarantees that he will be a target of Republicans in the 2008 elections. In turn, Courtney and the Democratic leadership have quietly launched a fundraising drive for his 2008 campaign that began even before he took the oath of office -- yet another reminder that, in modern American politics, some campaigns never end, and many politicians never get off the fundraising treadmill.

His party has a special interest in protecting Courtney; he is among 41 freshmen House Democrats whose arrival on the Hill has given the party its first House majority in 12 years. These days, Courtney receives regular campaign advice, contributions and monitoring from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has placed Courtney on its so-called Frontline team, the 29 Democratic House incumbents thought to be highly vulnerable in the 2008 elections, a number that includes 25 freshmen.

The House Democratic leadership has begun bolstering the stature of Courtney and other new Democratic members: showing them off at events with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, including them as co-sponsors of major pieces of legislation and praising their performance at news conferences. Politics is about nothing if not self-interest and the maintenance of power, and in the past, the self-interest of senior members dictated that House freshmen subserviently wait in line behind them for everything -- particularly powerful committee assignments and prime speaking time on the House floor. Not now. During the opening weeks, Courtney and other Democratic freshmen received speaking assignments on the floor during the Democrats' much-touted "100 Hour Agenda" -- a mix of bills addressing high-profile domestic issues such as the minimum wage, Medicare prescription drugs and loan rates on college tuition.

Some older Democratic bulls complained privately that they were being overlooked in favor of the freshmen. Pelosi reminded them that they wouldn't have their new power in the House but for the many newcomers, whom she calls "Majority Makers." In a favor seldom bestowed on freshmen in other eras, Courtney and many other new members have received their choice of key committees. Courtney won spots on the Education and Labor Committee and, potentially even more important for him, the influential Armed Services Committee. That body annually examines an important budgetary issue for Courtney: the building of nuclear-powered, attack submarines, which accounts for the jobs of more than 6,000 of his constituents.

A major district employer, General Dynamics' Electric Boat Corp., has seen its government contracts for subs steadily decline over the last two decades with the end of the Cold War and new demands on the defense budget, including the war in Iraq. At the peak of production, in 1973, the company received contracts to build six subs. Nowadays, the Navy contracts for only one sub each year, at a cost of more than $2 billion, with the work split between Electric Boat and Northrop Grumman's Newport News, Va., facility. The inability to get a contract for a second Virginia-class sub annually is much of the reason why Electric Boat has eliminated about 1,400 jobs at its Groton, Conn., plant over the last three years, and why it has plans to eliminate as many as 2,000 more jobs if it doesn't receive a contract to build an additional sub this year.

The only matter as important as the submarine to Courtney's fortunes has been his fundraising. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helped guide Courtney's 2006 victory, wanted him to raise between $200,000 and $300,000 by the end of March, Courtney says, a hefty goal made more urgent by the growing belief that the 2008 reelection will be formidable. During the early weeks of his term, Courtney heard talk from the 2nd District that the defeated Simmons was seriously pondering a rematch. It was thought that Simmons could pose the same problems for Courtney in '08 as he had in 2006: the presence of a moderate Republican with a history of winning endorsements from environmental groups, abortion-rights organizations and other traditionally Democratic-leaning activists. Both Simmons and Courtney agree that the Iraq war -- which Simmons opposed at its start -- became the Republican's albatross during the '06 campaign. Despite his misgivings about the conflict, Simmons had voted to authorize the war and didn't call for a timetable to pull out, having decided, as he puts it, "to remain loyal to the president during a time of war." And, as Courtney's term began, neither politician could be sure where the voters would be on Iraq in another year, which had Courtney wondering about Simmons's political plans.

In his little apartment, Courtney realizes that, even if Simmons takes a pass, other potentially tough Republican challengers will line up to take him on. And though Courtney's swift campaign start means he'll doubtless enjoy a large fundraising advantage in the early months over any challenger, he points out that Simmons raised more than $200,000 to his own modest $60,000 at a similar stage in the first days of the 2006 race. An advantage in stockpiled money is nice; but the funds guarantee nothing.

And so, his 2006 victory already feels tenuous to him. "A couple of votes the other way," Courtney says the next day, "and I'm back home doing deeds and divorces."

ONCE A CONGRESSMAN COULD CONDUCT FUNDRAISING IN HIS OFFICE. But those days are long gone, and any fundraising nowadays must be done off the House grounds, in what inhabitants of Capitol Hill commonly call a "safe house." Roughly twice a week, generally during mid-mornings or late afternoons, Courtney leaves the Hill and walks three blocks to the office of the Democratic National Committee on South Capitol Street SE. From there, he takes the elevator to the second-floor offices of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, known on the Hill as the "D Triple-C," a name that sounds like that of a dude ranch and that the members appreciate for the way it evokes a rugged efficiency.

Courtney and other vulnerable House Democratic members of the Frontline group maintain regular contact with the D Triple-C's chairman, Maryland congressman Chris Van Hollen, and its former head, Illinois representative Rahm Emanuel, now the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Emanuel, in particular, built much of his reputation on the successes of the D Triple-C in raising and disbursing money, winning new seats and protecting veteran Democrats in the 2006 election. It was the D Triple-C that arranged for a touch of Hollywood in Connecticut's 2nd District during the closing days of the 2006 campaign, dispatching actor Ben Affleck to visit the University of Connecticut with Courtney. The candidate suddenly benefited from hundreds of new student supporters willing to help with Democratic get-out-the-vote drives on Election Day. These days, the Frontline program solicits contributions from donors across the country, in some cases from benefactors who don't even know the particular congressman to whom they're giving but "who want to maintain our [House Democrats'] momentum across the country," Van Hollen says.

Courtney routinely signs in at the front of an office with a bank of 38 phones for use by any Democratic congressman making fundraising calls, everyone from a freshman Frontliner to a seemingly invincible senior member. Walk by nearly anytime on a weekday, and some congressman will be using a phone, with aides sometimes standing over his or her shoulder, feeding contributors' names and numbers in the interest of maximum efficiency.

The morning after he has spent 2 1/2 hours of a late afternoon making calls there, Courtney says, "I walked in, and the room was packed. Every phone was being used; some members had to wait to find seats."

No one likes making fundraising calls, Courtney observes. But he is well past being disillusioned, having done it since his political career began in the late '80s with a state legislative race. Even in 2006, as a highly touted congressional candidate trying to reach acquaintances and longtime Democratic donors, his calls seldom resulted in conversations with live human beings. Usually, he spoke to answering machines, leaving hundreds of messages a day, saying each time that he hoped to talk to the listener about a possible contribution. About one call in 100 was returned. "You could be Abraham Lincoln," he says, "but if you don't have the heart of a telemarketer, you're not going to make it to Congress."

UNTIL LAST NOVEMBER, COURTNEY'S EXISTENCE HAD BEEN LOW-KEY MIDDLE-CLASS for the better part of two decades. Born and raised in Connecticut, an Irish Catholic educated in parochial schools, he has spent most of his adulthood in the modest town of Vernon, population about 28,000, where he worked out of a law office where his daughter could hang out after getting off the bus from her Catholic school.

"It's been a nice pace through most of the years," he says, a rhythm disturbed only by his prodigious appetite for elective politics. Starting in 1987, he served four terms as a Connecticut state representative. He made a reputation in the Connecticut legislature for fine-tuning programs from its health committee. He left the legislature in the mid-'90s, when, he says, his wife was pregnant with their daughter and he wanted to be home more. In 1998, he reentered politics and ran for lieutenant governor on a ticket with the Democrat's gubernatorial candidate: They lost in a rout.

The loss did nothing to deter Courtney. In 2002, he was running again, this time for Congress in the historically competitive 2nd District against Simmons -- a military veteran, CIA case officer and Senate aide to Barry Goldwater and John Chafee -- who, just two years earlier, had knocked off 10-term Democratic congressman Sam Gejdenson. But by then, the modern American congressional campaign was a two-year effort, and Courtney had made the critical mistake of joining the race late. He hadn't announced his candidacy or even raised a dime until late September 2001, by which time Simmons had gathered more than $500,000.

Simmons won handily, with 54 percent of the vote. Courtney considered challenging him again in the 2004 election, traveling to Washington in 2003 to get an early reading of the national Democratic Party's support. He remembers an official at the D Triple-C bluntly asking him, "Why did you lose?" He explained his late start to the official. Later, he realized that his defeat had left him looking like questionable goods to the D Triple-C. He told friends back home that he needed a break. "I wasn't up for a run, I guess," he says of 2004. "The needle didn't show enough gas."

But by the next election cycle, he was ready, determined to run flat-out for two years, or from the moment that Simmons took the oath of office in January 2005. Knowing that the leery D Triple-C would be carefully watching his fundraising, he raised $60,000 by that March. It didn't compare to the nearly $250,000 that Simmons had amassed, or what Courtney himself would later stockpile as an incumbent congressman in early 2007. Still, it was a respectable number for a challenger, and the D Triple-C passed along encouragement. Courtney kept dialing for dollars. At that point, only his wife had the power to stop him.

"I really wasn't sure what Audrey would say again because [campaign] schedules are demanding," he says. "But her only comment was, 'You can run, but you have to win.'"

LIKE MANY CONGRESSIONAL NEWCOMERS, COURTNEY HAS HOPES of one day championing significant reform -- in his case, health care: perhaps extending insurance for uncovered children and making a broader commitment to addressing mental illness. But unlike, say, a prominent White House official, who can often launch a major policy initiative with the release of a ballyhooed position paper, new congressmen must generally bide their time before undertaking anything momentous; they must build seniority, ascend in committees. Some freshmen no sooner arrive than they begin to look toward higher office. But the House tends to reward the patiently dutiful, and that is just fine with a cautious Courtney. He knows that, for now, he can't focus on any political goal larger than getting reelected in his tough district. What he cherishes is quiet office time to read and study, to make calls to policy experts, to think about issues. But quiet time is scarce for a freshman. Lobbyists in particular keep approaching, and the fledgling member seldom has enough experience to distinguish those with genuine clout and intelligence from those who can neither empower nor inform him, those who stroll into his office with nothing but rambling spiels.

Late one afternoon, a lobbyist for an obscure law enforcement group enters without an appointment, but he gets 15 minutes with Courtney, anyway. The man shakes Courtney's hand and sits. "Okay, be patient with me. I haven't done this a lot," the man begins.

It's downhill from there. A polite Courtney never takes his eyes off the man, listening earnestly, nodding solicitously. After the man leaves, Courtney shakes his head. "They come in all the time, these guys who I'm sure are nice people, but they just take so much of your time," he says. "I still haven't learned how to handle all that, the time management thing . . . They don't tell you about that part of the job."

COURTNEY'S SUPPORTERS AND FOES AGREE ON THIS MUCH: Nothing would be a bigger boost to his reelection chances than if Congress called for a second sub to be built annually by Electric Boat. It would be evidence that a freshman congressman, contrary to skeptics' assumptions, had acquired savvy and clout in a hurry.

But observers on both sides also agree that Courtney's task won't be easy -- the proof of which is Rob Simmons's experience with the sub issue in the era of Republican congressional control. During his final term, the hard-driving Simmons inched closer to landing the second sub when the House Armed Services Committee authorized $400 million toward its development. But, in the House, an "authorization" is only a first step in the legislative process, the next step being to persuade the House Appropriations Committee to support the spending request before it goes to the full House for a vote and, if successful there, on to the Senate, which then puts the legislation through its own process. The road toward the passage of such a bill is long and, in the case of an expenditure to benefit the economy of isolated communities, often fraught with barriers erected by House rivals who have pet projects in their own districts. Despite Simmons's urgings and support from some key Republicans, the House Appropriations Committee, led by Republicans at the time, didn't take action on his spending request, and the drive for the second sub stalled.

Courtney has compiled a short list of the players in the House to woo, members who will have oversight over the issue of a second sub. Among them is Pelosi. He has aligned himself with her in every battle since he arrived, even voting for her staunch ally, John Murtha, for House majority leader, though it was clear that Murtha didn't have the votes to win. But Courtney says he hasn't had a real discussion with Pelosi about the second sub and that he wouldn't feel comfortable raising the matter with her in a conversation. "She knows about the importance of the [issue]," he says. "There've been e-mails from my staff to hers. And she was asked about it when she was up [in Connecticut] campaigning for me. She told people there that she wanted to be helpful, but, just the same, she was careful not to make a commitment."

In his first month, Courtney has learned just what a puzzle the process can be. "You don't want to rush too fast and make a mistake," he says. He has been listening carefully to congressional elders who, he says, have urged him to avoid risky shortcuts. Bypassing a subcommittee chairman in favor of first courting a seemingly more powerful committee head could be catastrophic. "Move carefully," he says. "Overconfidence is a dangerous trap to fall into around here."

ON A WEDNESDAY IN LATE JANUARY, ready to talk subs and accompanied by his chief of staff, Jason Gross, Courtney is taking a seat in the office of Armed Services subcommittee chairman Gene Taylor. With his tanned craggy face and the shock of salt-and-pepper hair across his forehead, Taylor resembles Jock Ewing, the folksy patriarch of the Ewing family from the old television show "Dallas." "Hi, there," he says to Courtney, smiling, shaking hands.

Their small talk lasts for less than two minutes; then it's down to business, talking second sub. "There're two legs on this for you -- us in Armed Services and then Jack Murtha," Taylor says to Courtney. "With Jack Murtha, you still need to make the case that it's a worthwhile expenditure. He'll give you a fair hearing. He realizes the importance of [the issue]; he's very conscious of it."

Taylor smiles. "And I know you want to know when we are going to have a hearing in [the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee] on submarines, right? I can tell you we'll have hearings on subs. I like to have a lot of hearings."

Courtney nods. "That gives me hope."

Taylor raises his palms in a gesture that seems to ask: Anything else?

"If I could," Courtney says, "I think I'd like to arrange for a conference call for the two of us with the press in Connecticut. It would help for them to hear from both of us on what we're all doing on this. They keep score there on anything to do with subs. They read these things like a scorecard. It would help."

Taylor nods. He has lent support to colleagues facing the media before. "I perfectly understand."

Taylor has a piece of advice: "You want to do all this pretty soon before other [appropriation requests] come up," the veteran says. "You don't want to be the last guy to go through the buffet line around here. Going early gives you the best chance . . . and even then, it's never easy."

ON A WINTER DAY, COURTNEY ATTENDS HIS FIRST MAJOR HEARING AT THE HOUSE ARMED SERVICES PANEL. The principal topic today is Iraq. On the skewer are Donald Rumsfeld's successor, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace. The two besieged luminaries sit at a witness table in front of the 62-member committee, who are positioned on four tiers, according to seniority.

On the Armed Services Committee, senior members have the first chance to question witnesses, and every member gets five minutes, which translates to more than five hours if everybody takes a turn. The questioning moves at a crawl. Courtney leans back in his chair and studies Gates and Pace with a long index finger pressed against his right cheek. Several hours pass before the first freshman has an opportunity to ask Gates and Pace a question, and at about this time, Gates says that he must shortly leave for an appointment. Courtney and the other remaining freshmen will need to wait for weeks before they see the defense secretary again.

But Pace remains. Finally, Courtney gets his opportunity. He wants to press Pace on a troop deployment detail that he read about in a newspaper article. Is it true, he asks, that some troops are being moved from Afghanistan to Iraq -- and, if so, "is that wise, considering how tenuous things are [in Afghanistan]?"

Pace's voice turns icy. "It is not true, sir," he says. "No troops are coming out. I don't know where that rumor [started]."

Courtney looks over toward the press section and a national security reporter who wrote the article, the Baltimore Sun's David Wood. He has come to appreciate Wood's articles on Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes alluding to them during the Armed Services hearings. The men exchange looks, and Wood tries to suggest with a raised eyebrow that Courtney is on the right track, that the general is technically correct but that there is more to the story here. Uncertain how to read that eyebrow and somewhat awed by the general's bearing, Courtney swiftly wraps up his questioning. Even in his own view, he looked "a little tentative."

Later, Courtney asks Wood about the seeming contradiction between his newspaper report and the general's testimony. "What happened there?" he asks. Wood says that no troops have gone directly from Afghanistan to Iraq; that the plan at the time had been to send them first from Afghanistan to Fort Polk, in Louisiana, where they were tentatively slated to go to Iraq before the deployment picture changed again. For Courtney, there is a lesson in what happened during his exchange with Pace. "If things don't exactly go according to script, you can't be shy and not follow up with more questions," he will say later. Back in the office, his communications director, Brian Farber, is trying to put the best face on what had just happened. "Unless there is an error in the Baltimore Sun story, then there is a discrepancy in what the general said."

But Courtney isn't looking for protection. Later he says, "I didn't handle that as well as I could have."

COURTNEY ARRIVES IN CONNECTICUT EARLY ON A THURSDAY AFTERNOON. He sees his family for a few hours, but by Thursday night, he has embarked on what will be a 48-hour whirlwind of get-togethers, interviews, meetings and fundraisers.

Wherever he goes in Connecticut, the 2008 election always seems to be looming. On Friday afternoon, he attends an event promoting the construction of a state highway called Route 11 that would connect two distant areas in the congressional district. There is his old rival Rob Simmons, accepting the praise of local officials who note Simmons's contributions in Congress toward advancing the highway issue. Introduced to the throng, Simmons makes a few remarks at a lectern, turns to Courtney with a smile and says, "Welcome to Route 11, Joe." Some in the crowd appreciate what they regard as Simmons's graciousness; others think Simmons is slyly suggesting that Courtney has come late to the Route 11 issue. There are a few chuckles. Whatever Simmons's intent, the effect of his comment has been to illustrate the gap between his own efforts on the highway and those of Courtney, who supports Route 11 but is just beginning to work on the issue in Congress. Courtney stands, praises his predecessor's effort on the highway, and the two rivals shake hands and clasp each other's shoulders.

As people leave, an old Simmons friend named David Bingham pauses by the door to shake the defeated congressman's hand and wish him well. "I'd have voted for Rob if he weren't a Republican," says Bingham, who switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat during the campaign. "The problem wasn't Rob. I voted for Joe because I thought I needed to do everything I could to stop Bush and the Republicans. It wasn't my party anymore. We needed to get Republicans out of positions of power in Congress and wherever we could."

Simmons hears that a lot. He now works out of a basement office in his home; several of his old congressional office boxes rest on the floor against a door. He isn't sure what he'll do next, but he can already see an '08 strategy. "I'd have to show that I'm running and not George Bush," he says. "Then maybe my friends and other people would come back."

For his part, Courtney is working nearly every waking hour -- his schedule includes a television interview in Hartford, meetings with social service advocates, sit-downs with visiting constituents and a lunch with the mayor of Norwich. The personal meetings are critical for building bonds with activists and officeholders with whom he doesn't have tight political relationships and whose disaffection at any point could spell doom for him in the district.

He finishes his workday on Friday by having dinner with a Republican supporter, a lawyer who helped supervise a review of the vote count in Courtney's slender victory. The dinner is supposed to end around 6 p.m., so that Courtney can get to his daughter's school basketball game on time. But at 6:45 p.m., he is still eating. Finally, he bounds toward a vehicle belonging to a volunteer who has been driving him around, not because he likes having a driver but because he has no worthy car to drive himself. "I've been bumming rides since I blew that engine," he says.

The volunteer's car is hurtling along, but he gets lost. Courtney has him pull off to the side of the road. He calls his wife. The game is already at halftime, she tells him. He walks back, looking crestfallen. The volunteer isn't sure where to go, he says. "No point in going now. We'll never make it in time even if we find it." He shakes his head. "I'm just going to go home."

I suggest that he jump in my car, which has a GPS navigational device. "We can find it," I say.

"It'd probably be over by the time we get there."

"Why don't you get in the car."

He thinks about it and gets in. He arrives at the gymnasium during the final minutes of the fourth quarter. His wife, Audrey, studies him casually, shrugs, smiles. She's used to this.

THE NEXT MORNING, COURTNEY RIDES TO THE COASTAL TOWN OF GROTON and the offices of Electric Boat's president, John Casey, who has talked to him often about the urgency of a second submarine. Now Casey doesn't bother repeating his national security arguments for the sub, instead boring in on the point that, without the additional sub, there will certainly be more layoffs of Courtney's constituents. "We appreciate everything you're trying to do," Casey says. Casey and other members of Electric Boat's management supported Simmons against Courtney in their two campaigns, praising Simmons's attempts to land a second sub. But with Courtney in office, the company has scheduled a fundraiser for the new congressman.

Courtney is learning a great deal about the benefits of incumbency, the chief of which is that money follows power. Well-heeled corporate contributors tend to be politically malleable. A couple of hours later, Courtney attends a fundraiser in his honor at a home in New London. The 35 guests include Dan Weekley, an official for the government affairs department of Dominion Resources Services in Waterford, one of the nation's leading energy producers.

"Joe initiated the call to us," says Weekley, whose company includes officials who supported Simmons in his reelection bids. Weekley says that he and other Dominion employees might contribute to Courtney in the next election, depending on his performance. "Joe's there now. He said to us: 'I'd like to sit down and talk with you and your employees about energy issues.' One of the important issues for us is an infrastructure energy project [in Connecticut]. You need permits from the government, water- and land-use permits. We want to streamline that process."

The fundraiser takes in about $25,000 for Courtney, who heads off to a Democratic Party fundraiser across town and then a meeting with a nearby Coast Guard official over dinner, which, as with everything in his professional life, runs overtime.

WHEN SUNDAY COMES, IT IS FINALLY FAMILY DAY. The four of them go to church and then head back home, where Courtney is free at last to shed his jacket. Nearby, the family's two guinea pigs rumble around in a cage on the kitchen floor. Courtney scans a newspaper. His children, 16-year-old Bobby and 12-year-old Elizabeth, are scurrying upstairs.

Audrey Courtney is a middle school nurse who also manages their kids' schedules, taking care of their transportation and every other need.

"She's got the tougher road with this," Joe Courtney says.

Audrey laughs good-naturedly. "He's having fun at all this," she says. "What could be so bad for him? He's wanted to do this his whole life." She adjusts her glasses, smiling in that practiced way of a nurse who has had to reassure a lot of people in her life that everything is going to be okay. She says she isn't bothered by his frequent absences, even on weekends. "He has to be out there," she says. "He only won by 83 votes. It could be close again. He's gotta be meeting people. I understand that."

The two reflect on stories they've recently heard about independents who, as past supporters of Simmons, said they didn't make up their mind to vote for Courtney until they were in the voting booth. Joe visibly shudders at the reports.

What do you get out of having your husband in Congress? Audrey is asked.

"What's in it for me?" she says, airily. She glances down at the guinea pigs and then up at her husband. She smiles. "How's this? The gratification of knowing that I'm well represented."

"You're on message," her husband says.

With Joe away five days a week on average, Audrey's responsibilities mount over the next couple of months. "I'm basically single-parenting," she says on another day, managing a chuckle. "I never make plans for myself when he's gone. I have to be at home. I have to be available to drive the kids here and there, or do whatever they need. It's tiring."

She also notices the toll that Joe's new job has taken on their life as a couple, even when he is back home on weekends. Speeches, fundraising activities and meetings with constituents consume many of their Friday nights and Saturdays. Sometimes politics even intrudes on Sundays. "We don't really do anything together," she says. "I know he's floating on air in this job; I'm really happy for him . . . But he's just been so busy even when he is back here. I understand he has to see people. It's just that the schedule sometimes has been a bit of a problem. They have him doing a lot."

Impatient, she finally phones Gross, the congressman's chief of staff, with a set of demands designed to lighten her husband's weekend duties and win herself a place on his schedule. "The biggest thing was that I said to [Gross] that I wanted at least one date night a month with Joe."

POLITICAL ACTIVISTS STUDY NEW CONGRESSMEN for signs of who is slavishly deferring to their party's leadership and who might be the rare freshman poised to take the risky path of occasionally bucking the leadership. Throughout his campaign, Courtney argued that American troops should be out of Iraq by the end of 2007. During his first couple of months in Washington, he has tempered his stance, taking more moderate cues from Pelosi and other Democratic House leaders on the timing for congressional moves against the administration's war policy. "Pelosi has told us to stay loose," he says.

He is also learning how quickly a new congressman can go from being one of the darlings of liberal activists to a politician suddenly under suspicion of establishment capitulation. One early February afternoon, he briefly steps out of an Armed Services Committee hearing whose spectators include a group of women dressed in pink and wearing clothes with anti-war slogans. The group is CodePink: Women for Peace. Some of the members spot Courtney in a hallway talking to a constituent. He notices them at about the same time and politely extends a hand.

The group favors a House resolution -- No. 508 -- that calls for U.S. troops to be out of Iraq in six months. One of the co-founders of the group, Gael Murphy, is wearing a T-shirt that reads "OUT OF IRAQ/NO WAR $" and a button with "3,110," the number of American military personnel killed in Iraq at that point.

She asks Courtney, "Have you signed on yet to 508?"

"I haven't," he answers.

"Will you?" she presses.

"I'm not ready to do that."

" Nothing's happening," another woman protests. "Democrats aren't really doing anything."

"That's unfair," Courtney says. "It's early . . . It's unfair to say we're not doing anything . . . But there's a process here . . ." He looks at them and smiles. "But pressure is good. Believe me, we're listening."

Murphy is not mollified. "We want you to sign on to 508."

"I'll take a look at it," he says.

He shakes their hands and walks back toward the committee room. Murphy watches him. "We have to make sure that talking about 'process' isn't used as an excuse," she says. "He got elected, but the problem now is that he's in the ivory tower of the process." She suggests that her colleagues could always stage sit-ins at the offices of congressmen who fail to support 508. "There is the possibility of offices being taken over, and you never know whose," she adds. "Code Pink of Connecticut might pay him a visit."

COURTNEY HAS BEEN BONING UP ON NAVAL ISSUES, trying to craft a national security argument for the second sub. He is drawn to reports about the Chinese government's expanded nuclear submarine program, a well-publicized Chinese missile test and the development of a Chinese aircraft carrier. In addition to arguing that a second sub is needed to offset those moves, Courtney has learned that the Navy could possibly use the sub to deploy stealth Special Op units to Middle Eastern hot spots. The second sub has affected his approach toward virtually everything he does in the Armed Services Committee, which accounts for the difference in his bearing when he meets up with Pace and Gates at another hearing.

The general and the defense secretary have been fielding questions about Iraq and Afghanistan all day. But when Courtney finally receives his turn, he ignores Gates and concentrates on Pace and the issue of America's submarine readiness, citing the Chinese navy's expansion. "You alluded, General, to how the Chinese are building 2 1/2 submarines a year; we [build] only one submarine a year," Courtney says, adding that, in time, "the size of our [submarine] fleet will be smaller than the Chinese navy's." He links the issue of the shrinking American sub fleet to the war in Iraq, asserting that the war is diverting money from subs and other U.S. sea power needs. "There is a disturbing decline of our fleet," Courtney declares.

Pace assures him that he will continue monitoring the Chinese, as well as keep on top of U.S. sub development. He says there are plans down the road to build two subs a year. He doesn't know the exact year that will happen, but, he adds, "I can get you that information."

Courtney looks at him, smiling thinly. "I can tell you, General. It's 2012."

Pace nods.

Courtney later makes the point that a laid-off work force "cannot just be replaced . . . with a snap of the fingers."

Pace nods again.

The committee's chairman, Ike Skelton of Missouri, pauses to offer a compliment: "Let me say I appreciate Mr. Courtney's reference to future readiness and the unpredictability of the need for American forces in the days ahead."

Back in his office, Courtney says, "I think I knew more about the issue than the general."

An encouraging report will soon be coming: Gene Taylor has scheduled hearings for the Seapower and Expeditionary Forces subcommittee on the subject of submarines. But that gets Courtney only an inch closer to what he wants.

IN EARLY SPRING, COURTNEY GETS THREE PIECES OF FAVORABLE NEWS. The first comes from longtime rival Simmons, who calls Courtney to say that he has been nominated by Connecticut's governor for a state post as a business advocate and that, if confirmed, he will be doing the job "full time." To Courtney, this sounds like Simmons's way of saying he probably won't be challenging him in 2008, though Simmons doesn't quite say this, leaving himself enough wiggle room to jump into the race, Courtney thinks. But later, after being confirmed for the post, Simmons goes on the Connecticut airwaves to say he won't be running for the 2nd District seat.

The second bit of encouragement comes from John Murtha, who expresses support for increasing funds to the Navy's shipbuilding efforts, including construction of an additional submarine. Courtney is careful not to make too much of this. "There's really no way of being sure what will happen in the [House] or the Senate," the freshman says.

Finally, in a report filed with the Federal Election Commission that delights his supporters and exceeds the hopes of the D-Triple C, Courtney's fundraising totals for the first quarter of 2007 are released. Thanks to contributions from former Simmons supporters such as John Casey of Electric Boat, he has raised more than $310,000 in three months, and already has more than $286,000 on hand for campaign spending. Both numbers are first-quarter records for a 2nd District incumbent in a nonelection year. Nonetheless, Courtney radiates caution. "Money is only part of a campaign," he says.

Meanwhile, visitors have kept streaming into his office, including his old friend Toby Moffett, the former Connecticut congressman who is a Washington lobbyist and something of a cautionary tale for any politician who believes that he is likely to stay in the House or in any other elective position for as long as he wants. Moffett's story is common enough for House members: He served four terms and then lost in a bid for the U.S. Senate. His political dream stalled there. "No one does this forever," Courtney says later. He sees himself in all his pursuits -- whether it's chasing the second sub or trying to protect a political career -- as the Irish fatalist. No one is supposed to win forever, he observes. "My hope is to serve the district for many years. But you never know what's ahead, I guess." There is a knock at his office door. An aide pokes his head in. A man wanting to lobby Courtney on an agricultural issue has stopped by: May he have a few minutes?

Courtney nods.

The man enters, shakes Courtney's hand, makes his pitch, leaves.

Courtney checks his watch. Another knock. Another visitor enters.

Rising, going to hearings, meeting with lobbyists, fundraising, speaking on the House floor, taking more meetings, walking to the apartment, crashing, rising: These are his days and nights in Washington.

The D Triple-C continues to send him reminders about his fundraising goals: Get off the Capitol grounds; get to the phone bank; make the calls.

He says he has calls to make soon and another constituent to see. Another knock. An aide pops in with a reminder: The fundraiser back home is that weekend.

"Yup," he says.

He rubs his eyes. He says he is no closer to mastering time management, but he thinks he has come to understand the rhythm of life on Capitol Hill.

"It just never stops. Never," he says. "You better get used to liking that."

No comments: