The presumed congressman-elect from California’s Central Coast, Democrat Salud Carbajal, is taking the measure of Capitol Hill this week, and vice versa.
As he prepares for his promotion from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to a $170,000-a-year job in the U.S. House of Representatives, Carbajal is figuring out committee requests. He’s lining up staff. He’s meeting new colleagues and he’s learning the ropes; or, at least as much as they can be learned during a week-long new member’s orientation.
“It’s a lot of information,” Carbajal acknowledged Tuesday, while standing in the Rayburn Room of the U.S. Capitol. “It’s a little overwhelming. It’s a little surreal, when you realize you’re here.”
His wife, Gina, and board of supervisors chief of staff Jeremy Tittle, who will assume the same position in Carbajal’s congressional office, waited quietly nearby. In the corner, near a portrait of George Washington, a U.S. Capitol Police officer stood watch. Waiters prepared for a reception, to be held later in the room close to the office of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Technically speaking, Carbajal has not been declared the winner of the expensive race to represent the congressional district that spans San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and a piece of Ventura County. As of Wednesday morning, he held a 136,301 to 119,050 advantage over Republican Justin Fareed. Upwards of 60,000 votes remained to be counted.
Fareed, though, was not invited to participate in the new members’ orientation program that runs the gamut from a welcome luncheon and class photo taken on the Capitol steps to myriad briefings and some initial opportunities to network.
By contrast, a Sacramento-area Republican candidate who lags Rep. Ami Bera, D-Sacramento, by fewer than 3,000 votes showed up for the House orientation even as Democrats predict Bera will prevail.
As a county supervisor, I was once in the minority and I was quite effective in building a relationship of trust. I hope to be able to do that here.
Presumed congressman-elect Salud Cabrajal
For Carbajal, the orientation program, whose first phase ends when he departs for California on Friday, marks a return of sorts. The former Marine has previously reconnoitered Capitol Hill hallways as part of lobbying trips for Santa Barbara County or the National Association of Counties.
Still, this week is different.
“You always feel like a visitor, someone from the outside,” Carbajal said, “and now, all of a sudden, you feel a part of the institution.”
After enduring a brutally efficient red-eye flight that arrived early Monday morning, Carbajal got to work on a first day that lasted, he said, until about 11 p.m. Part of his task has been to pick the brains of his predecessor, the retiring Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara. Capps, he said, has stressed the importance of knowing the rules and of hiring good staff.
In addition to Tittle as his chief of staff, Carbajal said he’ll be hiring his campaign spokesperson, Tess Whittlesey, as his congressional press secretary or communications director; the title has yet to be determined. Whittlesey previously interned for Pelosi and worked in the press shop of Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank.
Overall, a typical House staff consists of about 18 employees with a total payroll of about $944,000, split between Capitol Hill and several district offices. Carbajal expects to hire a legislative director with D.C. experience within several weeks.
“That’s going to be a key position to ensure we have a robust legislative program,” Carbajal said.
As a freshman, Carbajal would be a long shot to directly replace Capps on the much-desired House Energy and Commerce Committee. Instead, he cited his interest in the four panels that oversee transportation, agriculture, natural resources and veterans’ affairs.
“Transportation and infrastructure is number one,” Carbajal said. “I’ve done a lot of work on transportation and infrastructure.”
Carbajal said his wife will keep living in Santa Barbara County, where she works as regional director for Special Olympics and where the couple’s 16-year-old son attends high school. Carbajal anticipates traveling back to California every weekend; he said with the intention of being “very visible” and “very attentive.”
Unlike some other newly elected lawmakers, Carbajal did not accumulate any campaign debt, as of his most recent Federal Election Commission filing on Oct. 19. After spending more than $2.4 million to win his first House election, this means he can immediately start stockpiling cash for his next race, which is, after all, only two years away.