Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a freshman Republican of Florida, slipped into the Capitol on Monday night toting three freshly pressed dress shirts and a half a dozen ties. The building was quiet and nearly deserted; President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address was still a whole day away. —
But inside an elegant chandeliered suite, a camera crew was waiting. After just two weeks in Congress, Curbelo, 34 and a son of Cuban exiles, was about to have his moment — delivering the Spanish-language response to Obama’s address.
While Curbelo fretted over which tie to wear (he settled on a red, silver and blue striped number that he said had been “lucky” for him in elections), another freshman, Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., was home in Greensboro, reviewing her plans to introduce an education bill — and thinking about her hair.
Adams, 68, is a lover of fancy hats; she has more than 900. But lawmakers cannot wear hats into the House chamber. (“Kind of an old, antiquated rule,” the congresswoman complained.) So early Tuesday morning, before flying to Washington, she visited her salon for what she calls “this $40 hairdo.” It would be a big night for Democrats. “I want to make sure I’m looking my best.”
For longtime members of Congress, the State of the Union address in the seventh year of a presidency can be a ho-hum affair. But for freshmen like Curbelo and Adams, it is something else entirely — a congressional rite of passage, an initiation into what Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, called “the folkways of Capitol Hill.”
For Curbelo — whose message diverged slightly from the English rebuttal by Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa — delivering the party’s response to Spanish speakers was another heady turn in a new job that, he later confessed, has at times felt “overwhelming.”
It thrust the soft-spoken congressman into an unexpected spotlight; by midafternoon Tuesday, Democrats were labeling him a “Republican Party puppet.” Curbelo, who disagrees with the Republican leadership on at least one core issue, immigration, did not see it that way — though he is well aware that his job Tuesday was to showcase diversity in a caucus that is overwhelmingly white and male.
“I want to be modest about this — there aren’t that many of us that speak Spanish in the conference,” he said from behind the desk in his still-bare office, taking a pause between interviews. “But I also think the party was excited to have a young Hispanic voice.”
While Curbelo’s job was to rebut the president, Adams, a former college art professor who spent two decades in the North Carolina Legislature, spent the day trying to embrace him.
For her, the State of the Union address meant a chance to highlight the president’s education agenda — and her own. She arrived at the House chamber four hours early to nab a seat near the aisle with the hope of getting a handshake or a kiss from Obama on prime time television. (She did.)
Like many older African-Americans, she still looks upon the president with a kind of parental pride.
“It’s kind of like your own child — first of all, he’s very smart, he’s good to look at, I think he exudes a lot of genuineness,” she said Tuesday, shortly before catching her plane back to Washington. “We never thought there would be an African-American president. Just growing up, living in segregated environments, that’s not what black folks thought of doing.”
She went on, “It’s made me proud to be an American, but more particularly, to be an African-American.”
Members of Congress may each bring a guest to the State of the Union address. Adams, who is divorced with grown children, invited Taquawn Rorie, 20, a sophomore majoring in engineering at North Carolina A&T State University, to draw attention to her bill, which pushes for the arts to be incorporated in science education.
Curbelo, married with two young daughters, invited his wife.
Neither of these two freshmen is a stranger to Washington. Adams was first sworn in this November after winning a special election, so she has had time to settle in. Curbelo spent a summer on Capitol Hill as a page when he was 16, after interning for another Republican of Cuban heritage, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Yet for the Florida congressman, who has served on the Miami-Dade school board, life in Congress has been an adjustment.
He has spent just one night at home - this Sunday — since his swearing in this month. He took an apartment not far from the Capitol, only to realize he is spending so little time there that he might as well get a fold-up cot and sleep in his office to save time. He plans to make that change in February.
“I have not been able to find a rhythm, and I’m someone that likes to get into a routine,” he said. “I think living in my office will help me do that. I plan to use the gym every morning and start blocking some time on the schedule, to have what we in Florida call ‘work and call' time — and time to think.”
When he arrived at the Capitol on Monday night, just off the plane from Miami, he looked a little worn out. He had worked on his speech over the long weekend (including during a fast family trip to Disneyland) and practiced reading aloud on the plane. But reading off a teleprompter was harder than it looked. The congressman looked stiff and tripped up on some lines.
“Congressman, you ever watch Megyn Kelly? You know how she bobs her head up and down?” the Republican aide supervising the taping finally asked, referring to the Fox News commentator. He urged Curbelo to inject a little movement and told him he could use his hands a bit, “if it’s comfortable for you.”
Curbelo proved adept at following directions; soon his head was bobbing up and down, his hands moving in a controlled, intentional way to make his points. In the quiet of the Capitol, the camera rolled. “You found a rhythm,” the aide said. “That was great.”