New California congressman rushes to get up to speed

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 17, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Congressman-elect Jeff Denham has some choice committee assignments, a not-so-hot House office and loads of homework awaiting.

This is the price of political success. With his Jan. 5 swearing-in fast approaching, the Atwater Republican must come up to Capitol Hill speed.

"It's certainly been an eye opener, and somewhat overwhelming," Denham said. "I've got a lot of reading to do."

Reading is the least of it, though the 43-year-old Denham has his share of hefty briefing books as well as a new House-owned laptop computer and BlackBerry.

Since winning election Nov. 2 as the San Joaquin Valley's newest congressman, Denham has been busy onstage and off. The decisions he's been making, and those that have been made for him, will affect Valley residents for at least several years to come.

Denham's three committee assignments, for instance, will focus much of his legislative attention. He's been appointed to panels currently called the House Natural Resources Committee, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Committees sometimes change names once a new majority assumes control of the House of Representaties, though the general responsibilities stay the same. With the resources and transportation panels, Denham said he can focus on the water supply issue he calls his top priority.

"I'm excited about them," Denham said of his committee assignments. "I'm perfectly positioned to address all of the water needs in the Valley."

Once it's back under Republican control, the resources committee is likely to critique the Endangered Species Act and other laws and regulations that conservatives blame for Valley irrigation water shortages. The transportation and infrastructure panel writes big public works bills.

An Air Force veteran, Denham added that his slot on the veterans' affairs panel will help him address what he called the "biggest issue" of care for the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Denham is taking over the 19th Congressional District seat held since 1995 by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa. Radanovich, who is retiring following the death of his wife, Ethie, endorsed Denham during a heated GOP primary and has been working with him since.

Radanovich already has handed over to Denham the constituent service files that comprise the backbone of any congressional office. For the time being, Denham also will be retaining Radanovich's district offices at 3509 Coffee Road in Modesto and 1040 Herndon Ave. in Fresno.

"I wanted to have some continuity," Denham said.

On Capitol Hill, a chance drawing left Denham with few attractive office options. He landed on the sixth floor of the Longworth House Office Building, a relatively remote location from which most incumbents flee as soon as they can.

Denham hired 37-year-old Capitol Hill veteran Jason Larrabee as chief of staff, a crucial position for which Larrabee will be regularly commuting between California and Washington. Larrabee, a Sacramento Valley native, previously worked for former Republican congressmen John Doolittle and Doug Ose.

Larrabee also previously worked as a lobbyist for clients including the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority and the Placer County Water Agency, congressional records show.

Denham's other initial hires include seven district staff workers, for the Modesto and Fresno offices. He hasn't yet finished hiring his Capitol Hill staff members, who will include the legislative assistants that handle specific issues.

"We wanted to make sure we knew what the committee assignments were," Denham said.

Politically, Denham already has held one post-election fundraiser on Capitol Hill to help retire a $74,298 campaign debt. In Sacramento, he established a fundraising committee called Denham for Lt. Governor 2014; he called it a "placeholder" committee he can use to park funds previously raised for state office.

Denham is also still looking for a place to live in Washington. He said he's likely to end up rooming with another House member, while his family remains in California.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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