House freshman class co-presidents 'optimistic' about unity in new Congress

Meet two of Congress's freshman class presidents
Meet two of Congress's freshman class presidents

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    Meet two of Congress's freshman class presidents

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Meet two of Congress's freshman class presidents 02:50

Story highlights

  • Staffers installed flags outside office entryways
  • Workers wheeled furniture through the halls

Washington (CNN)The Cannon House Office Building was abuzz Monday afternoon as new members made their way to their workplace.

Staffers installed flags outside office entryways. Workers wheeled furniture through the halls. Bounties of office supplies were stacked on unclaimed desks. A chief of staff inquired about the Wi-Fi password. A hopeful administrator, whose boss was defeated in November, roamed office to office, résumé in tow.
Congresswoman-elect Val Demings, a Democrat from Florida's 10th District, arrived in Washington after a 17-hour train ride from Orlando, picked up the keys to her new office, and stopped to admire the placard with her name outside the door.
"Wow. This is my congressional office," Demings said as she walked in. "I feel right at home," she said, calling the space "warm and inviting, but yet serious."
She took it in, peeking at her desk, empty, save for a shrink-wrapped copy of the president's economic report and a stack of fresh business cards.
"It just means a lot to me -- the daughter of a maid and a janitor who always believed their children could be more, do more."
Two floors up, Congressman-elect Jack Bergman, a Republican from Michigan's 1st District, newly settled in after a 1,200-mile drive with a U-Haul from the Upper Peninsula, selected his official House stationery in his own spartan office. The retired lieutenant general chose a logo that reminded him of the Marine Corps seal, making sure his title was "Representative," not "Congressman."
"This is about constituent service ... I'm here to represent the people. I'm not here to Congress them," he said.
He stopped over to greet his office neighbor, Congressman-elect Scott Taylor of Virginia.
"I brought tools -- saws, hammers, so if you need anything," Bergman offered, joking that the two should install a sliding window.
Demings and Bergman are two of the 54 members of the freshman class of the 115th Congress, which officially convenes Tuesday. They, along with House Democrats Nanette Barragan of California and Donald McEachin of Virginia, were selected by their class' respective parties as co-presidents, an informal role focused on organizing within the congressional class and advocating on its behalf to leadership.
Speaking to CNN Monday afternoon, the two, who bonded last month at a freshman orientation program at Harvard University, presented a new portrait of unity and optimism after a bruising, divisive election.
"Our class is made up of men and women who want to get something done for the American people. They come from diverse backgrounds," Demings said. "Getting to know them, while there is uncertainty about the future, I am excited and very optimistic ... I believe that, as a member of Congress, we all have an obligation to unify our country and to help our country heal, because every day, every minute, every second that passes, there are people out there who are hurting."
Bergman said his freshman classmates in both parties have a responsibility to take advantage of the opportunity to make their mark on the 115th Congress and work together to break the Washington gridlock so frustrating to voters.
"You don't turn this around overnight, but we, the 115th Congress, have to put the pressure on to the system we've allowed to become routine, in some cases, to reverse the negative trends that make us all -- whether you're the representative or you're the constituent -- we're not happy," he said. "It's our mandate, I believe, to reverse the negative effects of the decisions that just haven't been paying off as a country."
And sometimes that may mean putting aside party ideology.
"While I am a Democrat, and while I love being a Democrat, I will focus on issues that directly impact the men and women and children who live in Congressional District 10 in Orlando, and I will work every day to make their lives better. I think the American people are tired of listening to a lot of rhetoric," Demings said. "They're looking for action, and I don't blame them."
The first day of Congress comes with its share of nerves, which Bergman calls "positive stress."
"I was nervous to walk into the office, just to say -- this is ours?" he recounted. "Those butterflies you feel in your stomach, that certain nervousness is what's called positive stress. Without that, you are not ready. With it, you are so much more capable, you are so much more, and your ability to get greater results because of those butterflies -- don't let them control you, just let them be there."
Demings admitted "the butterflies are there" for her, too.
"I don't know why anybody would put themselves through an election, put their families through it, if they were really not committed to service. The stress is there, the butterflies are there, the nervousness is there because we care and we want to do a good job," she said.