WASHINGTON — Renee Ellmers, a nurse, wife and mom from the small town of Dunn, N.C., became a U.S. congresswoman Wednesday, joining a tide of conservative, anti-government newcomers that will be among the most-watched freshmen classes in recent memory.
Ellmers has never held political office, but said she will get to work right away, joining the Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and Small Business committees. Next week, if the House moves according to schedule, she’ll cast a vote to repeal last year’s massive health reform overhaul – a law she and other Republicans call “Obama-care” to link it with the president.
“We’ve got to begin with a clean slate,” she said Wednesday. Like others among Republican freshmen, she also wants to focus on cutting spending, reducing regulations for business and trying to get more unemployed back into the work force.
“We have to have a more effective, efficient Washington,” she said. “My goal is to decrease the amount of government in people’s lives, decrease the amount of taxation to our businesses so they can start hiring again and get people back to work.”
Asked for suggestions on which programs she’d cut, Ellmers said she would first look for waste. “We’ve got to protect Medicare and Social Security,” she said on an elevator ride, “but I do think there’s wasteful spending that happens in Medicare and Social Security. These are things that have got to be looked at.”
It was a busy day.
On her first day in office she announced her vote for speaker (John Boehner), gave endless interviews, accepted all manner of hugs, attended an evening reception in her honor and defended herself against charges from Democrats that, already, she has left behind her tea party ideals to embrace the pomp of fundraising-obsessed Washington.
She spent much of Wednesday trying to find her way around Capitol Hill, following her chief of staff, Al Lytton, as he led her through the underground labyrinth of tunnels to the House floor.
Once there, she sat toward the back, next to fellow North Carolina GOP congressman Walter Jones, and close enough to the center aisle to reach over and shake newly elected Speaker Boehner’s hand as he made his way to the well for his opening speech.
She wore a glimmering gold dress suit with a glittering belt, easy enough to spot for the CSPAN cameras. She stood to raise her right hand for the oath of office, said, “I do,” with the rest of the House membership, and, after Boehner intoned, “Congratulations,” threw her head back and laughed with joy.
Her husband, Brent, and son, Ben, sat in the visitors’ gallery watching. Back in her office in 1533 Longworth – the same suite once occupied by the incumbent Democrat she defeated, Bob Etheridge – were more supporters and staff members watching on TV.
Jim Burgin, a Harnett County commissioner and small business owner who first encouraged Ellmers to run in October 2009, called her as a mature, well-grounded person of good character and said he was tickled to see her appointed to the Small Business Committee.
“We’ve got to get people back to work,” said Burgin, who owns insurance and real estate businesses. But he also acknowledged the pressures Ellmers will face in Washington.
“She’s going to have a lot more lobbyists visiting her than constituents, and that’s what concerns me about everyone up here,” Burgin said. “We as constituents need to keep in touch and ground her.”
Already this week, Ellmers got slammed by the Democratic National Party for a lavish and pricey fundraiser she attended Tuesday night that was put on by a GOP colleague from California and featuring country singer LeAnn Rimes.
Ellmers is among a dozen freshman members of America’s New Majority, a joint political action committee that raised money through the fundraiser.
“Ellmers has made it clear, before even casting her first vote, who it is that she will really represent in Congress – not the people of North Carolina, but Washington insiders and lobbyists,” said Joanne Peters, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Party (and a former spokeswoman for Etheridge).
Guests were charged $2,500 to attend -- $50,000 for an overnight package for eight -- and some Republicans reportedly shuddered at the perception the bash had as the GOP tries to convey a sense of austerity at the beginning of the 112th Congress.
Wednesday morning, Ellmers said she understood that the fundraiser drew unwelcome attention, but she said she would have no problem accepting money from individuals or political action committees that agree with her ideology. Back in the district, she has held fundraisers in Fuquay-Varina and Erwin in the past month.
“I don’t like fundraising – not that I don’t like meeting people – but unfortunately it’s a necessary evil in politics,” Ellmers said. “It was fun, and I hate that it’s such a point of controversy, but I’m here today and I’m ready to get to work.”
Still, she and other tea party-supported candidates will face increased scrutiny as they work to fend off the inside-the-Beltway mentality of Congress.
“I’m leery of that,” Ellmers said. “I think all of us who are considered tea party candidates, that’s just not our way of doing things. I think we can be safe from being co-opted and being part of Washington politics, because that’s not just who we are.”
Talking Wednesday, she ducked into a cavernous reception room where waiters were setting out china and glassware for a later event.
“Miss, would you like something to drink?” a waiter asked her.
She looked up, surprised but smiling. “No, thank you.”
Back in Ellmers’ office, Dee Sams, a real estate agent from Franklinton, said she’s been offended at some suggestions that new members supported by the tea party will quickly fall in line.
“We don’t want her to feel like she has to go along. No, that’s not what we want,” said Sams, who hosted a meet-and-greet for Ellmers during the campaign. “We absolutely plan to stay in touch with their votes. None of us are like, ‘We’re done.’ We need to keep both parties on track.”