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Washington Post: On their third day at work, congressional freshmen went through disorientation

January 12, 2021

It was her third full day of being a member of Congress and Nikema Williams, who was taking over the Georgia seat held by the late Rep. John Lewis, had slept maybe two hours the night before. She’d celebrated Raphael Warnock’s win in the Georgia runoff elections that would determine control of the Senate, and was still waiting to see if the massive voter mobilization effort she’d helped organize would bring a runoff win for Jon Ossoff as well.

Williams was nervous. Wednesday would be her first moment in the spotlight as a sworn-in congresswoman: Republicans were planning to challenge the certification of Joe Biden’s win in Georgia, and as one of Georgia’s electors, Williams would be responsible for standing up for the outcome. She knew that the resistance to accepting Democratic victories in Georgia — especially those driven by Black voter turnout — was part of a long racist history of voter suppression in the South, and she planned to say so in her speech.

A pro-Trump rally was gathering outside her new office. Her husband insisted on driving her to work, even though she could easily walk from her barely furnished new apartment. Given her skin color and her politics, Williams, 42, worried she might be a target.

That afternoon, with things looking good for Ossoff in Georgia, another freshman, Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), was going to bring champagne, and Williams and her staff were looking for cups. Then a text alert came in saying that their building was on lockdown. Williams turned on the TV and saw people running through the Capitol Rotunda flying the Confederate flag. “How that feels as a Black woman from the South, I don’t think I can ever really explain it to anyone,” she says.

Being in a new job is exciting and unsettling, no matter the workplace. There’s a slew of people whose names you have to remember; in the case of House members, there are 60 freshmen and 435 members total, each with their own staffs ­­— many of whom may not know the building or the office politics any better than their bosses do. It might take weeks before you know how to find the supply closet. Maybe you’ll go hungry one day because you don’t know where to get lunch and can’t work the vending machine. Chances are you fell asleep a little during orientation and missed something important.

“I’m still figuring out the ladies’ room, for God’s sake,” says Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), who was in her office when the siege happened. Newman and Rep. Ashley Hinson (R-Iowa), who voted to certify Biden’s win, both say they’re constantly getting lost in the Capitol’s maze of underground tunnels.

Normally this kind of first-week disorientation is no big deal — except that when avoiding a violent mob, it might help if you’ve been in the building longer than three days and know it a little better than the people hunting you down. And such a disturbing attack might forge a bond among freshman members of Congress — except that many Democrats believe some of their new Republican colleagues were partly responsible for inciting it.

And now, they all have to go back to the office with one another.