A Freshman's Early Maneuvers On Capitol Hill

Newly minted Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil is just geting used to his office and his new job. Kratovil, who won a close contest in a historically Republican Maryland district, now must balance his constituents' needs with the realities of doing business in Washington.

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(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Good morning, Congressman Kratovil's office.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Frank Kratovil had officially been the Democratic congressman from Maryland's 1st District for about 24 hours when we met him in his brand new office on Capitol Hill. There is nowhere to sit in the front room. The walls and bookshelves are totally bare, and the folks on staff here don't even have business cards yet, so they're handing out little slips of paper to guests.

Representative FRANK KRATOVIL (Democrat, Maryland): All right. Well, thank you very much guys. Sorry, it's kind of a little bit awkward hereā€¦

ROBERTS: A lot about Frank Kratovil's experience is common to any freshman member of Congress - the process of picking an office, learning the ropes. But Kratovil is breaking out of the pattern a little bit, too. For one thing, he's decided to commute across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge back to his district every night.

Representative KRATOVIL: This morning, it took me about an hour and 15 minutes.

ROBERTS: Kratovil is the first Democrat in 18 years to take this conservative district on Maryland's eastern shore, and he only won by a few thousand votes. So he figures enduring a big commute is the least he can do to convince skeptical constituents he's got their interests at heart.

Representative KRATOVIL: From a practical side of it, you have the opportunity to go home every day, experience the same thing your neighbors are experiencing. If there's a traffic jam, you see the traffic jam. If there is some problem, you see it. Equally important in my view is the ability to maintain some sense of normalcy with my family. I've got four young boys - 11, nine, seven, and five -and, you know, the thought of leaving them for four or five days, it would be very, very difficult. So I'm blessed in the fact that I can go home every night, even if it's late, and, you know, tuck my kids in and give them a kiss goodnight.

ROBERTS: Well, having little kids is also a pretty good way to deflate any self-importance you might have accidentally taken on.

Representative KRATOVIL: That's putting it mildly.

ROBERTS: You ran, in part, by saying Washington was broken. Partisanship had taken over the process. That professional politicians were taking the government away from the people. How do you balance those criticisms with now being part of that system and taking pride in it?

Representative KRATOVIL: I think you demonstrate independence. You make sure you're doing your best to look at both sides of issues, as I did as a prosecutor. You don't believe everything you're told. One of the great benefits I have in terms of being a prosecutor is I was constantly faced with the total opposite views of a particular situation. And the key was sifting through all the facts in getting, you know, getting to the truth. And what I found is that the truth was somewhere in the middle.

ROBERTS: Because you're in a swing district, you have to assume the RNC would love to have your seat back in 2010. How much attention do you pay to re-election?

Representative KRATOVIL: You know, right now, I'm focused on listening and learning, doing the best I can to make decisions on the legislation that I'm going to be voting on. I haven't spent too much time yet thinking about the re-election. But listen, you have to run every two years, so. And this is to say it's a - in a sense, it's an ongoing process.

ROBERTS: One way Congressman Kratovil can help his re-election chances is by staying to the right of the Democratic majority. He's already taken steps in that direction by joining the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate-to-conservative Democrats. And he knows he won't be following the entire agenda of the Democratic leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for instance, is not particularly popular in his district.

Representative KRATOVIL: Whether you agree or don't agree, our leaders deserve respect. And so I may not agree with her on every issue, and there are certainly going to be issues where I'm going to be opposing the majority. But that does not mean that at any time I would lose any respect for her. I think she's - she seems very personable. She's obviously had an incredible career. And she is the speaker of the House of Representatives.

ROBERTS: What sort of issues do you expect to be breaking with the majority?

Representative KRATOVIL: Well, we talked about, you know, legal immigration. I think that that may be one. I think the Blue Dogs on certain issues as it relates to financial responsibility may break with the rest of the party. So those are a couple.

ROBERTS: Meanwhile, Congressman Kratovil is plenty busy. He's already been named to the Armed Services Committee, but he's waiting to hear his other assignments. He's not convinced about the value of President-elect Obama's economic stimulus plan, and he wants to learn more. He's hoping to get a chance to pick up some boxes from his old job as county prosecutor, so he has something to put on those empty bookshelves. And he needs to keep from getting lost. TEXT: Representative KRATOVIL: I was talking to some members that had been here for years, and they still get lost. It is overwhelming when you get down in the basement area. But I'm getting better.

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