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The Freshman 42: Mr. Mitchell's Opus

Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) is the unofficial "dean" of the Freshmen 42.

Rep. Harry Mitchell of Arizona
(File Photo)

At 66, he is the oldest member of the newest crop of House Democrats. And, unlike some of the non-politician upstarts who ousted GOP incumbents last November, Mitchell is a veteran politico who served as mayor of Tempe for 16 years and worked his way up the leadership ladder of the state Senate for eight years before defeating incumbent J.D. Hayworth (R) by a 51 percent to 46 percent margin.

Two months into his new job, Mitchell mixes wide-eyed idealism with the hard-nosed reality of life as a top Republican target in 2008.

"I get lost. I still ask for directions [around the Capitol]. I go to work every day in a museum. I love it," Mitchell told Capitol Briefing last week, waving his arms at the paintings and fine architecture of the Speaker's Lobby, the room just off the floor of the House.

In the same breath, Mitchell broke down the political challenge he faces next year: Running for reelection in a congressional district where Republicans have a voter registration edge of 17 percent and where President Bush got 54 percent of the vote in 2004 (Hayworth got 60 percent of the vote that year).

With those numbers in mind, House Democratic leaders gave Mitchell the opportunity to gin up some headlines in his local media market of Tempe and the suburbs of Phoenix. On Thursday, Mitchell chaired his first subcommittee hearing of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other VA facilities -- one of the hottest political issues to hit the capital since The Washington Post broke the story a few weeks back.

In addition, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plucked Mitchell to deliver the Democratic response to Bush's national radio address this past Saturday. It's not the most important assignment, but one not usually given to a freshman lawmaker.

In his address, Mitchell delivered a stinging rebuke to how the Bush administration has handled the treatment of injured Iraq war veterans: "Sadly, what is happening at Walter Reed is not an exception to the way this Administration has treated our troops. Too many of our brave young troops were sent to war without the equipment they needed. Once they came home, too many found long waiting lines in a Veterans Health system that has been persistently underfunded by the Bush administration."

The prospect of getting such attention has taken Mitchell aback. "I thought I would come here, have a couple committee assignments, settle in," he said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get a subcommittee chairmanship."

This past weekend was the first that Mitchell didn't trek home to his district, not counting the weekend he worked down in Williamsburg, Va., at the House Dems' retreat. The dizzying pace of cross-country travel is already wearing a bit on Mitchell. "You come back here on Arizona time and wake up there on Washington time," he quipped.

Republicans are already trying to paint Mitchell as a pawn of Pelosi's liberal agenda. Their latest focus is on labor issues, particularly Mitchell's vote two weeks ago for a bill that makes it easier to expand labor membership but that does not include a key business demand -- guaranteeing secret ballots in those organizing votes.

"If Harry Mitchell is willing to strip this fundamental workers' right and exploit the privacy of hardworking Americans in order to pad the wallets of big labor, what else is in store for the little guy," asked Jessica Boulanger, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The Rothenberg Political Report, an independent insider's guide to House and Senate races, rates Mitchell's district currently as "lean Democratic" for 2008, but the tipsheet still puts him as one of the 17 most endangered Democratic incumbents.

Facing that stark reality, Mitchell has already begun aggressive fundraising, including a big event in the district and one here in Washington. In 2006, he raised and spent just less than $2 million to defeat Hayworth, ending with almost no money in the bank but no debt.

Mitchell said it's a permanent campaign to stay in office: "I'm working it. It's unfortunate, but it's necessary."

For now, though, he would prefer to focus on the glory of the job. A teacher of high school seniors in American government for 20 years, Mitchell likens his current state to that of the Richard Dreyfuss character in the film "Mr. Holland's Opus" -- about a composer who teaches high school to help provide enough money as he pursues his dream of writing one great piece of music.

To date, Mitchell hasn't composed the perfect piece of legislation, but he's trying. "I'm really honored. It's exciting," he said.

By Paul Kane  |  March 12, 2007; 3:39 PM ET
Categories:  House  
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