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Congressional House Hunters

Three weeks or so after each election 50 or more House freshman congressmen and congresswomen, plus their aides, and members of the media cram into a hearing room for tradition.

The tradition is that each member waits until his or her name is called, when it is called, they draw a number from a box and if they want the media to think they’re cool, they do or say something funny before drawing a number. The 50-plus House freshmen gather for the office lottery, which is important and requires a little luck.

It’s important because it’s where these congress members and their staff of nine or so will spend the next two years. And no, all House offices are not created equal. Many members move offices after elections for a more desirable space.

The best offices are in the Rayburn Building, but none of those were available this time around. They’ve been claimed by more senior members. The Raybun offices often have the best views of Washington, are a short walk to a metro station, are closer to the House floor and are reachable by elevator.

If you get an office on the fifth floor of the Cannon Building, you probably aren’t going to get any of those things. In 2012, Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, opted for an office that was split by a women’s bathroom to avoid a fifth-floor Cannon office. He was one of the last picks in the lottery.

Touring the different offices was low-key. For as animated and crowded as the lottery pick was, I expected a mad dash from office to office.

This is how the lottery works: Each member is called alphabetically. They draw a number between one and however many offices are available. This time it was 57. The members then have a few hours to check out some offices. When they return to the hearing room, they choose an office based on which number they picked in the lottery. The lottery is non-partisan. Number one gets the best pick. Number 57 is not so lucky.

Colorado’s freshman member is Rep.-elect Ken Buck, also freshman class president. He represents the state’s fourth district, which covers Castle Rock, Greeley, Eastern Colorado all the way down to Baca County. He drew 26. Not too bad, but also not a number that gets you your first choice pick.

It could be argued luck was not on his side. One member told Bloomberg News she was buying a rabbit’s foot and another was going to pat a University of Notre Dame logo. An aide to Rep.-elect Gwen Graham, D-Florida, did a backflip before Graham chose her number. Other members danced. But not Buck. There was no dancing, no good luck charms. Just the pick, which seems pretty fit to his character. No frills.

The freshman started his career in politics after graduating from law school at the University of Wyoming interning for former Vice President Dick Cheney when he represented Wyoming in the House. He’s been a prosecutor for the Department of Justice, the chief of the criminal division of the Colorado U.S. Attorney’s Office, the district attorney for Weld County and he’s been trying to get a seat in Washington since 2010 when he lost a high-profile senate race to Democrat Michael Bennet.

Buck’s Communications Director Greg Brophy, former Colorado state senator, his wife, current Windsor state senator Perry Buck, and his Chief of Staff, Ritika Rodrigues, filed out of the hearing room down to a tucked away lunch spot on the first floor of Rayburn.

Finally, it was decided that the top pick was a suite in Longworth and first-floor Cannon offices facing South were second and third.

There were a few staffers in the quiet space off the main hallway, where there was enough table room to sprawl out the House building floor plans.

“How much square-footage does this one have?” Buck asked Rodrigues and Brophy, who visited various offices leading up to the lottery. “Will this office be near the construction?”

The Cannon Renewal Project, which is scheduled to take 10 years through four phases, will start next month. The Cannon Building has not had many of its systems upgraded since the 1930s.

Buck was looking for a place with space. 1,000 square feet would have been ideal for the nine staff members he plans to have in his office. And a split office was out of the question. Some offices split the staff into two different spaces. But after looking at a few offices with the group, it seems worth considering.

Nine-hundred square-feet is tiny for nine people. And the layout is not open. Think Frank Underwood and House of Cards. Now think of your office. Freshmen members end up somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Congressional looking, but compact. Very compact. The furniture is bulky, and there has to be somewhere for visiting constituents to sit. Maneuvering around the front desk and the sitting area to see the kitchenette and divided offices is a challenge.

Touring the different offices was low-key. For as animated and crowded as the lottery pick was, I expected a mad dash from office to office. The bunch stopped for lunch in the cafeteria before getting lost and asking for directions. It felt a lot like the first day of high school. Except everybody had law degrees and expensive suits.

Buck didn’t spend much time looking around the offices, and what he did notice were small details, such as the military seals hanging on the wall of Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema’s office. The Navy seal was missing. An aide said they were waiting for it to be made and then they’d hang it up too.

“All or none,” Buck told Brophy quietly.

Perry Buck was impressed with the offices. And really, anything would have worked for her, she told me. She asked the important questions about the office spaces. Is there a kitchen space? A personal bathroom? Are the rice crispy treats free? The Rep.-elect rolled his eyes and slipped out of the office before the staffer for Arkansas’ Rep. Tim Griffin could answer, which was yes.

Occasionally the group would stop to talk to another House member in the hall. They’d make recommendations on offices that seemed to contradict what the previous person said. I’m not sure we’ll ever know if it’s better to be in Cannon or Longworth.

Finally, it was decided that the top pick was a suite in Longworth and first-floor Cannon offices facing South were second and third.

When the group came across a fifth-floor Cannon office, Brophy laughed.

“That’s the Tom Brady pick.” It was bound to be last, and not going on their list.

Buck ended up with Cannon 416, the current office of Rep. John Fleming from Louisiana. It checks off all of the necessities on Buck’s list. It’s a bigger office, not split up, close to the metro and has a decent view of Washington. And it was among his top five choices. Not bad for picking 26th.

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Written by Kara Mason

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Kara Mason is PULP's news editor. She is also the Society of Professional Journalists Colorado Pro Chapter president. Kara freelances for other regional publications, covering government, politics and the environment.

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