San Diego Union-Tribune

04-Mar-2001 Sunday 

Susan Davis adjusts to life as a smaller fish in a bigger pond


WASHINGTON -- The taxi driver turned to his passenger as the Capitol glowed against the night sky.

"Oh, those people, . . . they don't do anything," the driver said.

"I'm one of those people," said Susan Davis.

Davis, San Diego's newest Democratic member of Congress, recalled the exchange recently with a smile as she ended her first month in the 107th Congress after a narrow victory over incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray.

As a former California Assembly member, San Diego school board member and head of the San Diego League of Women Voters, Davis has been here before -- as a visitor. But now it's different for the 56-year-old freshman, trying to bridge the different worlds of San Diego and Washington.

Almost all new members of Congress have a great deal to learn.

Like many freshmen, Davis has found herself lost in the maze of corridors under the Capitol. She has talked to colleagues, not knowing whether they were Democrats or Republicans. She met President Bush twice -- once giving him a candle as a reminder of California's energy crisis. She hoped for a presidential smile at least (she got it).

The second time she met Bush, at a reception, the president said, "Oh my gosh, you're back."

"I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing," she said, laughing.

But Davis feels she is adjusting well.

"I think the state Legislature experience was just huge for me," said
Davis, who served the six years allowed in the Assembly under term limits. "It takes awhile -- it took awhile in the Legislature."

Davis has a low-key manner and speaks softly but laughs easily. The former social worker said she is in awe of the government buildings and institutions. But she said she's intent on carrying out her mission of education, health care and campaign finance reform. And she's learning the intricacies of the military.

Davis said she's coping with the frustrations of the House, an institution where "making a difference" is measured in small steps, especially for a Democrat in the Republican-controlled chamber.

"In the Assembly, it's so hands-on. Here, it's a little different," she
said. "Here, it's an amendment here and there."

Within two weeks of being sworn in on Jan. 20, Davis gave a eulogy on the House floor for one of her mentors, Olive Wehbring, a former president of the League of Women Voters.

It was her first speech as a member of Congress.

"That's a little strange," she said, "Nobody's in the room."

Except during a vote, the floor of the House is usually quiet. When members deliver personal speeches such as Davis' first speech, the room can be all but empty.

Each morning, Davis walks a few blocks to the Capitol from a house where she rents a room from Rep. Darlene Hooley, D-Ore.

Davis and her husband, Steve, a physician, have purchased a fixer-upper near the Capitol that is being renovated. In San Diego, they live in a house in Kensington.

One of the struggles of her new life is a weekly 6,000-mile round-trip
commute between San Diego and Washington. On Thursday nights, Davis flies to San Diego and returns to Washington the following Tuesday. She has two sons and expects to become a grandmother in April.

On Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, Davis was dressed in red -- forsaking her
signature purple -- and wore a large heart-shaped pin.

It was a typical day on the job. She scurried from meeting to meeting, from her office in the Longworth Building to the Capitol and back.

"The trick is if I can find my way," she said.

To find her way back to her office at 1517 Longworth from the Capitol,
Davis reminded herself that when she gets off the elevator, "make a left at Rep. Brad Sherman's office."

On a Capitol elevator, an acquaintance noticed Davis.

"Hi," the man said, and he began to introduce Davis to someone else. The other person appeared uninterested.

"This is Congresswoman Susan . . . "

The guy's eyes lighted up.


As a new congresswoman, Davis said she doesn't see the power as much as the responsibility serving on the Armed Services and Education and Workforce committees.

On this day, following an hourlong closed-door meeting of the Education subcommittee, Davis walked out fuming. The session apparently was more vitriol than valentines.

Republicans had blocked Davis from supporting the subcommittee's Democrats at one point, saying the paperwork had not been cleared to "officially" name Davis to the committee.

"I wasn't recognized," she said matter-of-factly, conceding rules of the House.

Davis tries not to miss anything.

But she does. It's unavoidable.

Often, her committees meet at the same time or overlap with each other.

Over lunch in the exclusive House Members Dining Room, the waiter greeted her: "Ma'am, are you a new member?"

"Yes," Davis said.

Looming over the lunch was a congressional version of the recess bell. The loud buzzer warns members of an upcoming vote so they won't miss it.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, a veteran Republican from El Cajon, sat alone at a nearby table.

"Duncan's still here, so there's no vote yet," Davis said.

Then the buzzer sounded again. Hunter bolted.

But Davis didn't have her voting card with her. Her press secretary, Aaron Hunter, dialed his cell phone.

Then he turned to her and said, "It's time to go."

She had hardly touched her lunch.

Davis got her voting card in time and voted "yea" to a bill requiring train companies to assist victims of railway accidents.

The time it took to vote, however, cost her a meeting planned with former San Diego City Councilman Wes Pratt.

Later, a military lobbyist stopped by. He reminded her that she could use his building anytime "if you have a large delegation and need a place for a reception."

"OK," she said.

Then Davis greeted a group of UC Santa Barbara and UC San Diego students attending a political science program in Washington.

"We're in a great learning curve," the new congresswoman said, admittedly talking about herself as much as the students.