The incoming Congress includes a hate-crime victim beaten with a baseball bat, a double amputee, a former homeless man who lived in a park, and a member so poor growing up that she had no running water or electricity.
Those four will serve alongside Robert F. Kennedy’s grandson, whose path into politics couldn’t have been more different. Also joining the House today: an author of 15 books, including a New York Times best-seller; an award-winning physicist; and a returning representative who last served on Capitol Hill during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.
These freshmen all have to figure out a way to work together in a Congress increasingly polarized by political party differences.
“The overwhelming number of members are getting elected from districts that vote with one party, so they don’t have room to maneuver,” said Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican who was chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and is now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte & Touche LLP. “You may be able to find your niche that reflects your interests, but it will be limited.”
As they take office as part of the 113th Congress, these new members will try to meld their diverse backgrounds in a legislature containing a record seven openly gay lawmakers, an unprecedented 20 women in the Senate and the first all-female state delegation, from New Hampshire.
Joe Kennedy, a Democrat whose grandfather, father, great-uncles and cousin served in Congress, is a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School. He most recently was an assistant district attorney for Middlesex County, Massachusetts.
He will serve alongside Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat whose family faced poverty at times in her childhood, forcing them at one point to move into an abandoned gasoline station without electricity or running water.
From that start, she went on to obtain bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral and law degrees; wrote a book, “Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last,” published in 2009; and was elected to the Arizona state senate. She is the first openly bisexual member of Congress and is, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the first lawmaker to specify “none” when asked for religious affiliation.
“The rich and powerful have a voice -- trust me, I get badgered by their lobbyists all the time,” she said on her campaign website. “It’s the rest of us who are now not getting heard because of the special interests. There are three words I vow to never forget: ‘We the people.’”
The Senate will have its own religious trailblazer: Mazie Hirono is the chamber’s first Buddhist. The Democrat is also the first woman to represent Hawaii in the Senate.
Two freshmen House members stand out for their military service and sacrifice. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, lost both legs after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004. In 2011 she raced the Chicago Marathon in a hand-cycle wheelchair, finishing in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 26 seconds.
Republican Paul Cook of California had a 26-year career in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of colonel. After graduating from college in 1966, he attended Officer Candidate School and was sent to Vietnam, where he led an infantry platoon and was awarded a Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts for combat injuries.
Another freshman who, like Sinema, has faced housing challenges is Steve Stockman, a Texas Republican who served one term in Congress in 1994. A Michigan native, Stockman dropped out of junior college, moved to Texas in 1979 and spent a brief period homeless in a park in Fort Worth before settling in Houston.
By contrast, a fellow member of the Texas delegation, Democrat Beto O’Rourke, enjoyed the life of a rock ’n’ roll musician in his early 20s. He was a singer and guitarist in the band Foss, which toured North America in the summers of 1993 and 1994 and released two records, “The El Paso Pussycats” and the album “Fewel St.”
Today, the former rocker from El Paso is concerned with getting more Customs and Border Patrol officers “so that we can get people through our bridges more quickly and still securely,” he said.
Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, was also an entertainer in college, using his sleight-of-hand skills as a magician to earn money for his tuition. He said he became open about his sexuality after being beaten with a baseball bat upon leaving a gay bar, an incident that inspired him to get active in politics.
Bill Foster, an Illinois Democrat who served in Congress after winning a special election in 2008 until his defeat in 2010, was on the team receiving the 1989 Bruno Rossi Prize for cosmic ray physics for the discovery of the neutrino burst from a supernova. He also invented magnets for Fermilab’s accelerators.
Another returning member of Congress is Rick Nolan, a Minnesota Democrat who’s been gone far longer than Foster and the others who getting a second life in Congress. Nolan first served in the House from 1975 to 1981, the year Carter turned the White House over to Ronald Reagan.
The freshmen class is also notable for accomplishments in language. Duckworth, whose mother is from Thailand and who spent part of her childhood in southeast Asia, speaks fluent Indonesian and Thai and conducted one of her election-night interviews in Thai. Matt Salmon, an Arizona Republican, was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan in the late 1970s and learned Mandarin there, making him the only member of Congress in history fluent in Chinese, according to his campaign website.
Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican, wrote 15 books before his election to Congress. They include three novels his Amazon.com author profile describes as “military techno-thrillers,” as well as inspirational books such as “Seven Miracles That Saved America: Why They Matter and Why We Should Have Hope,” a New York Times best-seller. He’s working with Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home in 2002 and held captive for nine months, on her memoir, set for publication in September 2013.
Many of the freshmen survived divisive, and even nasty, primary or general election campaigns on their way to Capitol Hill. The most magnanimous among them -- and perhaps the best sport -- may be Nolan, who’s also among the oldest members of the freshman class: He hired one of his primary election foes to run his district offices.