Politics & Government

California’s new congressman, Ami Bera: a doctor in the House

On the fourth floor of the Longworth House Office Building, a short distance down the white marble hallway from the elevator, Rep. Ami Bera is still unpacking things in an office that just last month was somebody else’s.

It’s a typical scene on Capitol Hill for the 80 freshmen of the 113th Congress, including Bera, an Elk Grove Democrat and physician elected in November as part of the biggest wave of California newcomers in years.

But seniority rules in the House of Representatives, and among 435 members, Bera ranks near the bottom.

Some freshmen get offices tucked away in basements and other places you have to ask for directions to find. But he drew a lucky number, 48, in the office lottery and got to pick his own space. It may not be the biggest, or have stunning views of the Capitol and the monuments – committee chairmen and senior members get those – but it has other advantages.

“I like it because it’s close to the elevators,” said Bera, sitting behind his new desk in a room with blank walls. “What folks were saying when we had our open house was how easy it was to find. It’s very accessible to the public.”

Slowly but surely, Bera is finding his way. His office is about a five-minute walk to the House floor, via a maze of tunnels that connect the Longworth, Cannon and Rayburn office buildings to the Capitol. Longworth has a large cafeteria in the basement where lawmakers, staff, interns and reporters all mingle every day around lunchtime.

But lawmakers’ busy schedules sometimes don’t allow time to grab a bite, much less relax over one.

“What I’m realizing is in the few days that I’ve been here is to make sure I eat breakfast, because I don’t know when the next meal is going to come,” Bera said. “You’re just racing from one thing to the next.”

Bera’s years of practicing medicine and roaming hospital hallways prepared him for his new job: “Certainly wear comfortable shoes, especially when we’re in session.”

There are other practical considerations, such as where to live. Bera said he might look into getting a condo, but home is still Sacramento, where his wife, Janine, is also a physician.

“My wife’s got her practice in the district and our daughter is in high school, so I’ll be flying back whenever I can,” he said. “Almost on a weekly basis.”

But he has made new friends, some from the campaign trail and others from his committee assignments. Bera is on the House Foreign Affairs and the Science, Space and Technology committees.

“It’s at committee level that you get to know folks,” he said. “And you’re really working on things.”

He’s gotten to know fellow Democrats Denny Heck and Derek Kilmer of Washington state, and fellow Californians Scott Peters and Raul Ruiz. Ruiz is also a physician, and Bera said they’ve discussed creating a bipartisan doctors caucus. Republicans have a 21-member doctors caucus.

Bera’s new friendships reach across the aisle, including Republican Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky, who like Bera lost to an incumbent in 2010, but won a rematch, and Republican Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois.

“The more time we spend together, the more our families get to know one another,” Bera said. “It makes it that much easier to work together. You have those relationships.”

The first day, Jan. 3, was hectic. There was the swearing-in at noon. Then an open house. Then a re-enactment of the swearing-in with family members and House Speaker John Boehner. And there were the first votes.

“We got the office keys just the day before,” Bera said. “It was a good day, though.”

It also was a good day for Bera’s father, who had come to the U.S. from India in the 1950s to study engineering.

“What an honor to get sworn in and then to look up and see my dad standing in the gallery,” Bera said. “He had a beaming smile all day.”

Like other children of immigrants, Bera knows about possibilities. He was born in Los Angeles in 1965 and attended public schools, where his mother taught for three decades. Bera attended a community college, then the University of California, Irvine, where he earned his medical degree and met his wife of 22 years.

His career as a doctor, a county government official and a university admissions dean led him to run for Congress in 2010, challenging longtime Republican Rep. Dan Lungren. Bera lost a close race in a bad year for Democrats.

But learning from his mistakes, and last year, with the help of redistricting, fundraising and an endorsement from former President Bill Clinton, Bera eked out a victory.

He came to Washington for freshman orientation before he was declared the official winner, a situation made more awkward by the fact that Lungren was in charge of the orientation. On the last day, Bera boarded the plane back to California as a congressman-elect.

Bera said he and Lungren spoke by phone.

“It was a brief conversation, but he made sure to emphasize the honor that I was about to embark on,” the fledgling lawmaker said, “that this really was about the institution of Congress, which is bigger than any one member.”