I was 15 minutes late for my 12:30 appointment with Congressmember Bob Filner. The temperature in Washington, D.C., had reached about 90 degrees by 9 a.m. the morning I flew in from New York (sharing a shuttle with Chuck Schumer, I might add—some people get excited about pro athletes or movie stars; I get my thrills from seeing senior U.S. senators in airplanes), and I did a fair amount of speed walking en route to the House offices, so I must have lost track of time in the restroom dealing with the 13 layers of perspiration I'd accumulated on the way.
My tardiness was likely the reason Filner whisked me out of his office on what would be a whirlwind trip from the Rayburn building to the Capitol—but not before he summoned me toward the window behind his desk and beamed with pride over the view it afforded him and visitors to his office. Seniority has its privileges, and one of them, apparently, is an obstructed view of the Capitol dome. Judging by Filner's jovial relationship with the photographer who snapped a photo of the Congress member and me, many folks have had their mugs shot in front of that window.
His genuine satisfaction with his current location was endearing.
From the window, we bolted past the front desk, around corners, down hallways and past wall plates emblazoned with familiar names (John Murtha, Jesse Jackson Jr., etc.), Filner guiding me the whole way with a light grip on my arm.
Turned out Filner had just minutes to get to the floor of Congress to vote on three separate bills. He chatted the whole way—educating me on the system of lights that indicate how much time is left before it's too late to vote, ribbing other members of Congress in the elevator. He pointed out his arch-nemesis, Steve Buyer (BOO-yur) from Indiana, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which Filner chairs. Buyer jumps at any chance mess with Filner's mojo, he said.
When we arrived in the basement of the Rayburn building, imagine my surprise when we encountered an amusement-park-style tram waiting to take Congress members (and this day, me) to the Capitol. At some point during the 30-second-long journey on the rails, I thought myself: Whoa, I'm riding in an underground train with dudes about to make laws on the floor of Congress. Bitchin'.
Moments later, after exiting the tram, we strode quickly past William Jefferson, the Democrat from Louisiana, who was the target of a 2005 FBI sting operation and who was subsequently indicted on 16 corruption charges. Filner pointed him out and quietly remarked on the difference between that and Filner's own 2007 tussle with a female United Airlines employee at Dulles Airport as a way of minimizing his brush with the law. Jefferson was reelected in 2006, Filner commented—what a country.
Suddenly, I found myself in the gallery overlooking the floor, where I immediately began reciting the names of the popular congressional action figures I spied: There's Nancy Pelosi! And there's Henry Waxman! Hey, look, it's little Dennis Kucinich! Yo, Rahm Emanuel! I was beginning to feel less like a journalist and more like a political fan-boy.
Filner said he'd only just learned that one of the bills he was there to vote on had turned controversial—one putting $1.6 billion in the hands of Mexican and Central American authorities over three years to fight the drug war—and he'd been out of the loop, so he needed to take the temperature of two constituencies down on the floor: members of the Hispanic Caucus who supported the bill and the progressives who didn't. I watched him chat with Silvestre Reyes, the Democrat from Texas, as San Diego's own Susan Davis listened in. Then he stopped to talk to one of the progressives on his way toward casting one of 22 Democratic “nay” votes (203 Dems voted “aye”). Filner returned to the gallery, and we watched the tally come in on the big board on the wall. The bill passed 311-106. We surveyed the board for the local delegation: Davis, Darrell Issa and Brian Bilbray voted “aye”; Filner and Duncan Hunter voted “nay.” Filner saw Reyes talking to Howard Berman, the Democrat from the San Fernando Valley, who sponsored the bill, and examining a piece of paper that Filner said contained the list of Democrats who voted against the Hispanic Caucus.He'd have to deal with those consequences later—it was time for lunch.
In the members' dining room, Filner made small talk with the bus and wait staff—he takes enormous pride in knowing them personally. He boasted about helping save the facility's staff's jobs after the operation was privatized some years ago, and he said the Spanish speakers help him learn the language. In a bit of a faux pas, Filner tried out his Spanish on a Brazilian dignitary who was introduced to us, but he caught his own mistake amid the awkwardness—Brazilians speak Portuguese.
“That's Duncan Hunter's table,” Filner said, pointing to a table against a wall. “If you don't know it, you're going to be in trouble. … He's a very powerful man.”
He directed my attention to a familiar face sitting at another table. It was former Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Republican from Texas who left the Congress in 2006 amid money-laundering charges. I wondered aloud what DeLay was up to, and Filner dutifully went to find out, returning moments later information-free. “He wouldn't tell me,” he said with a mischievous smile. Filner said he made a joke about how DeLay doesn't “have any principles,” but he wasn't so sure DeLay thought it humorous. “That's where I cross the line,” he acknowledged, adding that when he's asked about his strongest and weakest attributes, “my sense of humor” is his stock answer.
Clearly, Filner has a good time doing what he does. He said he caught Potomac Fever—defined in one online dictionary as “the determination or fervor to share in the power and prestige of the U.S. government in Washington, D.C.”—while working for Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the mid-1970s.
Judging from the goofy grin I'm certain graced my face that day, I think I may have come down with a case of it myself.
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