Rep. Ami Bera was sworn in Tuesday for a second term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but only a few months ago, his return to the Capitol was anything but certain.
Bera, a Democrat who represents California’s 7th District, started Election Day 500 votes behind his Republican challenger, former Rep. Doug Ose. But he gradually picked up enough new votes to declare victory 15 days later.
In the final tally, Bera beat Ose by 1,400 votes. At a cost of nearly $20 million, the Sacramento-area House race was the nation’s most expensive in 2014.
“Just win on election night next time,” Bera said his wife, Janine, told him.
On Tuesday, the newly-minted second term congressman welcomed visitors to his new office, one floor above his last one in the Longworth House Office Building across Independence Avenue from the House chamber.
The next two years may not be easier than the first for Bera, with his party even deeper in the minority. But still, the physician and member of the bipartisan Congressional Problem Solvers Caucus thinks there are many areas where he can find common ground with his Republican colleagues.
In a recent interview, Bera talked about his tough re-election and the next two years ahead.
Q: You’re coming back to Congress as a member of the minority party. What can you realistically expect to accomplish?
A: We’ve talked a lot about working through (the tripartisan political group) No Labels and the Problem Solvers and really tried to build those relationships across the aisle. None of that’s changed. If there’s anything I’d like to get passed in terms of my priorities, it’s going to take Republican votes.
I think the strength in the coming Congress is our freshman class (of 2012). We’ve actually done as much as possible to stick together in a bipartisan way, to get to know one other, do things socially, so there really are a lot of strong relationships.
We’ll have to see how the leadership approaches things. But my sense is, the mandate of this election, when people were frustrated with business as usual in Washington, D.C., is they want to see Congress work. It’s going to take Democrats and Republicans working together.
Q: You mentioned No Labels What meaningful improvements has the group made?
A: A year ago, we introduced nine pieces of legislation designed to make government more efficient and work better. We were able to pass two of those: No Budget, No Pay, as well as one we co-sponsored with Chris Gibson (R-N.Y.), the 21st Century Health Care for the Heroes that helps improve the care we’re giving our veterans through the VA (Veterans Administration) system.
Those were minor victories. Now that we’ve grown to 100 members, we really have started to talk about meaningful legislation around four key areas: One, adding 25 million jobs over the next 10 years. Two, balancing the budget in 10 years. Three, securing Social Security and Medicare for the next 75 years, and four, getting America to a level of energy self-sufficiency.
We actually have to start putting that legislation together and start getting leadership on board. It’s not going to happen at the top. We have to do it as rank-and-file members.
Q: You just won a close re-election after an expensive and bruising campaign. What makes it worth it?
A: We helped folks in the district recover over $1.3 million in benefits. Veterans who were having trouble accessing their benefits. Social Security recipients. Medicare recipients. Helping people get their passports. When you run into someone on the street or on the campaign trail, and they say ‘thank you’ _ that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
Q: Who do you admire most among your House colleagues and why?
A: Congressman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), who’s been a mentor. He’s taken an approach of really trying to work across the aisle. He’s been a real leader on the U.S.-India relationship. (House Democratic Whip) Steny Hoyer (of Maryland) has been a mentor of mine. We’ve worked really closely with (Rep.) Doris Matsui, who’s been a longtime champion of the region. (Rep.) John Garamendi has been a real partner and a real friend as well.
On the Republican side, I’ve worked closely with guys like Mark Meadows (of North Carolina). Jeff Denham and I came together and formed the California Public Higher Education Caucus. Ed Royce (of California), who’s chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Chairman Royce and I have a pretty close relationship.
Q: Should members spend more time in Washington?
A: Members should spend more time together. When you know someone on a personal level, it’s much harder to just throw these bombs back and forth and make it political. Mark Meadows and I are very close. Mark is a very conservative member of Congress, but on a personal level, we like each other. It would be my goal to introduce a bill with every Republican member of Congress, because there’s something we can all agree on.
Q: You’re the sole Indian-American member of Congress. What does that mean to you?
A: I’d like to see the community get more engaged in elective office, in civic engagement. I think the generation that’s rising, that was born here, certainly will do that.
India is the largest democracy in the world. A strong U.S.-India relationship is very good for us. In South Asia, we need reliable allies like that as we start to withdraw from Afghanistan. India has a critical role in stabilizing the region.
Q: How do you see your election prospects in a presidential year?
A: I think the reason I was re-elected this time is how much we served the community, how regularly we connected and engaged in the community. If I keep doing that, if I keep listening to my constituents, if I keep advocating on behalf of the people who live in my district and in the Sacramento region, I feel very confident that I’ll get re-elected. As I’ve said many times, the best way to get re-elected is to go do your job. Even though there was low voter turnout, the people who showed up gave me that endorsement to keep fighting for them.