Five days after Ohio freshman Rep. John Boccieri (D) landed a nationally televised press conference to announce that he would vote in favor of landmark health care reform, he was shooting hoops with President Obama in a charity basketball game.
Never mind that the targeted Boccieri voted against the House version of the bill that passed in November -- he effortlessly explains that they were two very different bills -- he has set himself up as the picture of strength that Democratic leadership envisioned for each of the new members staring down very tough races later this year.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland warned members as soon as they were sworn in that they needed to prepare for a violent storm in the midterms and they had better find votes from Day One to separate themselves from leadership. Boccieri believes he's passed that test, but as with all of the other freshmen and sophomores, the tough health care vote will follow him all year.
"I will say that as a freshman member of Congress, the most difficult thing for me has been to discern through the fog of political war," Boccieri said in an interview with National Journal just a few hours before he was able to flee for recess on Thursday. He explained that a deluge of robocalls and rowdy town halls has made it more difficult to figure out where the majority of his district stands on certain issues.
"You talk about political warfare -- we were in the eye of the storm," he said.
One night during the week leading to his announcement on the health care vote, "I was in my office here answering e-mails about 10 after 10, and I get this call from DeKalb County, Georgia, and I'm like, 'Ma'am, I want you to know that I'm not your congressman,'" he recalled. "And she said, 'I just want to talk to you because I've seen your name on the news.'
"I talked to her for about 10 minutes and then I said, 'Listen, I've really got to get back to my job.' And she's like, 'Well, I just can't believe that a congressman answered the phone.'"
Boccieri said two-thirds of the calls he got came from outside his district. "It's awful because these special-interest groups lock up your phones, so you can't have folks who you need to help with passports and getting through the bureaucratic maze for Social Security or something to that effect," he lamented. "We see these often on those big votes."
When deciding how to cast the big vote, he looked to history for guidance.
The 40-year-old researched the positions that each of his long-serving predecessors took on major historical votes in the right-leaning swing district. Democratic Rep. William Thom voted for the Social Security Act; Republican Rep. Frank T. Bow voted for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and Medicare; and GOP Rep. Ralph Regula cast an anti-NAFTA vote.
"So when America asks the 16th District for leadership, the members of Congress have always stood up and made the right choice, and I view this as one of those historical votes," Boccieri said.
But despite voting with the leadership on major legislation like health care, the economic recovery package and cap-and-trade, Boccieri has staked out the center on a host of other votes -- just as Van Hollen and his advisers want to see.
Boccieri cited as evidence his National Journal ranking as one of the chamber's most centrist members. "That's a reflection of our district, and it's a reflection of the votes that I've taken."
So far this session, Boccieri introduced the HIRE Act with Florida freshman Republican Rep. Tom Rooney. The bill, now a law that carries Obama's signature, offers tax breaks to businesses that hire unemployed workers.
Boccieri's also working with New York freshman GOP Rep. Chris Lee on legislation that would make permanent a research and development tax credit.
That's an area he said he'd like to delve further into. "I would like to concentrate on science and research; I have a really big passion for that."
Boccieri has the natural ability to personalize his political interests. When it came time to vote on health care, he thought about his mother's cancer diagnosis, and as the vote was nearing he spoke to one of his constituents, Natoma Canfield, who famously wrote a letter to Obama about losing her insurance in the middle of a battle with cancer.
"It brought me back to a place I haven't been in a long, long time," he said of the conversation.
Boccieri got a shout-out for his decision from Obama on Saturday when the president hit the Capitol to rally the troops before the big vote.
"Totally unnecessary," Boccieri said when asked about it, but he admitted that it did earn him extra respect from colleagues.
Indeed, young Democratic lawmakers who poured into a Pennsylvania Avenue establishment following the Sunday night vote on health care reform enthusiastically high-fived Boccieri and shouted, "best rollout" about his Friday press conference.
The rollout was the latest example of his political polish. Boccieri mentioned several times during an interview that he likes politics and has been studying it for a long time. Perhaps luckily for him -- or not -- he's in a state that's always under a national microscope when it comes to politics.
"It's a quintessential swing state, and I'm in a quintessential swing district," he said. And as far as this tough year is concerned, he's upbeat and believes he's on the right side of history: "There's no way you can avoid that tsunami, you can only swim with it."
But when sizing up the field this cycle, several Republican candidates running in other House races shake their heads and acknowledge that Boccieri is "really good" and appears unbeatable. The National Republican Congressional Committee likes its chances in Boccieri's district with Jim Renacci, who quickly raised $50,000 after Boccieri announced he would support the Senate bill.
Still, before Boccieri even won the open seat in 2008, another NRCC official sighed and said that summer, "I hate that race. He's such a Boy Scout. We're never going to beat him."
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