Colorado’s two newest representatives are getting a crash course in Congress

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Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Rep.-elect Yadira Caraveo at new member orientation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Democrat will be the first member of Congress from Colorado’s new 8th District.

Colorado is sending two freshman representatives to Congress next year, and their preparations are already well underway.

Dr. Yadira Caraveo and former state Sen. Brittany Pettersen recently wrapped up a whirlwind two weeks of orientation at the Capitol, getting up to speed on everything from congressional rules and how to set up their offices to finding the cafeterias and getting work tablets and phones.

For Pettersen, a former state senator who will represent the 7th Congressional District, the reality of her new job really hit on the first day of orientation.

“I walk into the room and everybody starts clapping ‘cause I'm a new member,” she recalled, a welcome staff repeated for each freshman as they arrived for the first meeting.

And like any onboarding for a new job, the greetings were followed swiftly by a firehose of information and details.

“It was so much, I didn't hear many things that he said,” Pettersen admitted. “It was just a moment of sitting there just a little bit shocked that this was really happening, while my son was running around.”

Caraveo jumps in after a close race

The reality of her situation came a bit more gradually for Caraveo, the first Latina who Colorado is sending to Congress.

Her race to represent the state’s new 8th Congressional District ended up being one of the closest in the state. It wasn’t officially called until the start of orientation. She said it was during the Thanksgiving break that it really started to sink in.

“Every day that you spend here — you're in the Capitol and around other members and under that dome — it becomes more real,” she added.

Aside from learning the ropes and the myriad of rules, Caraveo said she used orientation to build collegiality with other new members, including Republicans, over meals and conversations on bus rides.

“Right now it's about getting to know your classmates, the members that are already here, and how to build those relationships that will allow you to be a good legislator.”

The Adams County Democrat learned those skills in the state House. And she wants to apply them to issues she heard her constituents talk about over and over again on the campaign trail — housing, inflation and healthcare.

7th District Rep.-elect. Brittney Pettersen in Washington, DC, for new member orientation, Dec. 1, 2022.
Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
7th District Rep.-elect. Brittney Pettersen in Washington, D.C., for new member orientation, Dec. 1, 2022.

Pettersen looks at building bipartisanship

Pettersen also stressed the importance of building bipartisan ties in the two weeks she was at the Capitol, “working with people who I might not agree with 99 percent of the things on, but there might be unexpected allies that have similar concerns on issues.”

Like Caraveo, Pettersen is drawing on her experience as a state lawmaker. For some of her time in the legislature, there was split control in Denver — a similar dynamic to what she’ll have to navigate in Washington, where Republicans will control the House in the next Congress. 

But Pettersen said she’s disappointed that there wasn’t more official time for new lawmakers to socialize together during orientation.

“You're immediately invited with your leadership to dinners, but it's partisan. And so I think that we need to work on setting a different tone with the new members. I feel hopeful that … we can bring in a new perspective around working together,” she said.

She’s already thinking about putting together a freshman dinner or reception once they are all back in the Capitol next month.

Committee assignments will shape both Caraveo's and Pettersen's work

One place both women will look to find people to work with will be in their committee assignments, once they have them.

Caraveo is angling to get a place on Energy and Commerce, a top-tier committee that can be a tough assignment for a freshman lawmaker to land.

The panel has one of the broadest jurisdictions of any in Congress. It looks at a myriad of issues important to her district and interests — from health care and health insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid, to energy policy and travel, tourism and sports.

“Being a doctor, having that experience in healthcare is important. And also the energy industry and economy in the 8th District is something that I think merits our representation,” she explained.

She’s also looking at the Agriculture Committee or the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Pettersen, too, has her eye on the Transportation Committee. “It's something that really affects, I mean, every part of my district, especially the rural investments that are needed,” she said.

Long term, Pettersen expressed hopes to get a seat on the all-important Appropriations Committee. But for the next two years, she said she’d be happy if she is assigned to Health and Education or Natural Resources or the Science, Space and Technology committees.

For all of the seriousness of learning how to be a congress member, orientation ended on a fun note: the traditional office lottery.

All the new members crowded into a hearing room to reach into a wooden box filled with little numbered buttons. This year the numbers went from one to 73 — one for each new member. They set the order in which freshmen get to choose their new work home for at least the next two years.

Luck was on the side of both Pettersen and Caraveo. Pettersen pulled 25, while Caraveo got 28.

Both members-elect said they’re looking forward to getting into the offices, and to their next trip to the Capitol. That will happen on Jan. 3, when they are officially sworn in, with family and friends looking on.