- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Incoming Colorado Rep. Jared Polis earned millions by starting and selling a bevy of Internet firms, including ProFlowers.com and the Blue Mountain greeting-card site. Now, the entrepreneur-turned-public servant will tap that business expertise as the new 111th Congress mulls legislation to revive the economy.

“I’ve created jobs, I’ve dealt with health care from the employer side and the employee side, I created value in the economy, and I am familiar with the capital market,” said the Democrat, whose district includes Boulder.

Mr. Polis is one of 67 new members of the 111th Congress - 11 senators and 56 members of the House - scheduled to be sworn in today, capping two months of meetings and orientations on topics as basic as setting up a district office and as timely as stimulating the economy.

The freshman class is a group of 55 men and 12 women. Forty-two are Democrats, 24 are Republicans, and one is an independent. Seventeen are lawyers, while four are physicians. Three - Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, James E. Risch of Idaho and Mark Warner of Virginia - are former governors. One - Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat - is a Rhodes Scholar.

Mr. Polis, 33, who served six years on the Colorado Board of Education, said he was first drawn to public service by a desire to reform the public school system. His education priorities include expanding access to early childhood education, promoting choice in public schools and supporting charter schools and access to higher education for all families.

As Colorado’s first openly gay member of Congress, Mr. Polis said Capitol Hill “is at its best when it represents the full diversity of the American people.”

Joining him in that assessment is 27-year-old Aaron Schock, the new congressman from Peoria, Ill. He is young enough to be the son - in a few cases, maybe grandson - of some of his colleagues, but the Republican says Capitol Hill could use some young blood.

“I think age is an important aspect of diversity,” Mr. Schock said. “Just as I would not suggest everybody in government ought to be in their 20s, everybody in government should not be in their 50s or 60s.”

Indeed, Mr. Schock has the resume of a child prodigy: He started investing in real estate on his 18th birthday and, by 19, was elected to the Peoria School Board. He finished college in two years and, by 23, was serving as both president of the school board and an Illinois state representative.

Mr. Schock said his first priority in office isn’t sponsoring a particular piece of legislation, but rather, something “quite more fundamental.”

“Building relationships with my colleagues, to get to know them on a personal level - not just my Republican colleagues but my Democratic colleagues as well,” he said. “Strong personal relationships are the foundation to productive policymaking.”

Louisiana Republican Anh “Joseph” Cao is one of 13 freshmen who have never held public office. Yet House Republican Leader John A. Boehner hailed Mr. Cao as “a symbol of our future” after the soft-spoken Vietnamese immigrant defeated incumbent Rep. William J. Jefferson, a nine-term Democrat who was the state’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction. Mr. Jefferson was indicted on racketeering and bribery charges in 2007 after federal investigators found $90,000 in his freezer.

Many attributed Mr. Cao’s victory in a heavily Democratic district to low voter turnout for a Dec. 6 weather-delayed special election. Nevertheless, the 41-year-old immigration lawyer says he intends to win the support of Democrats in New Orleans by steering clear of partisan politics.

“Whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, Asian, white or Hispanic or African-American, we all want health care, we all want education, we all want economic development,” he said.

Mr. Cao, who fled Saigon when he was 8, is the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to Congress. A former Jesuit seminarian, he taught ethics and philosophy at Loyola University New Orleans before earning a law degree at Loyola School of Law and opening a local branch of Boat People SOS.

As for steering clear of ethics problems, Mr. Cao plans to “have a system that will prevent corruption of my staff as much as possible.”

“I will conduct my dealings, my associations in the most ethical manner possible,” he said.

Unlike Mr. Jefferson, who has yet to stand trial, former Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska became a convicted felon just eight days before he faced off with challenger Mark Begich, the mayor of Anchorage. Mr. Begich narrowly won, unseating the longest-serving Republican in the Senate.

“He was a senator when I was six years old,” said Mr. Begich, 46. “In a lot of ways, it’s very humbling, but I think Alaskans were just ready to move our state to the next level.”

Mr. Begich spent a decade in the Anchorage Assembly before taking over as mayor of the state’s largest city in 2003. His election marks the first time an Alaskan has been in the Democratic Caucus since 1972, when a plane carrying his father, Rep. Nick Begich, disappeared over the Gulf of Alaska. Ever cognizant of Alaska’s “redness,” Mr. Begich said he governs as a centrist.

“When people hear the word ‘Democrat,’ they think of a certain kind of Democrat, but when they see me serve, I manage differently,” he said.

His Web site touts decreased property taxes under his tenure, and the freshman senator is a member of the National Rifle Association. He also supports drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - a proposal routinely blocked by Democrats.

Mr. Begich said his presence in Washington will enable him to reach out to his party on the issue, pushing for an energy policy that involves not only ANWR but natural gas pipelines such as the one that has been proposed to tap resources in Alaska’s North Slope.

“Being born and raised in the state, I’m the last one who wants to spoil it,” he said. “My job is to retell the story.”

In addition to developing a long-term U.S. energy policy, Mr. Begich says his other priorities include nationwide investments in infrastructure to help allay the economic crisis and improving health care with an emphasis on veterans and seniors.

Though the phrase “political dynasty” has been reserved for Caroline Kennedy in recent weeks, this year’s freshman class includes cousins and new Sens. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado. The pair, both Democrats, are former representatives in their respective states. There’s also California Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, a Republican who replaced his father, Duncan L. Hunter.

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