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By Erin P. Billings Roll Call Staff Even after having won a bitter election that pitted him against his former boss, the test wasn’t necessarily over for freshman Rep. Dennis Cardoza when he took office in January.

The rural California Democrat is taking on perhaps the greater challenge as he works to win over his Democratic colleagues and heal a constituency wounded by the scandal that surrounded Cardoza’s predecessor, then-Rep. Gary Condit (D).

“It was an incredibly turbulent two years,” Cardoza said in a recent interview. “It was gut-wrenching for a lot of people.”

Plagued by the disappearance of Washington intern Chandra Levy, Condit’s final months in office became a public relations nightmare. The media followed Condit’s every move, and many of the Central Valley-based Member’s long-time allies abandoned him during his unsuccessful attempt to capture an eighth term.

Cardoza is still unclear about how he will ultimately fit into the House Democratic Caucus after ousting a Member who served there 14 years. But Cardoza says he believes Members are warming to him, and his district is embracing him — thankful he is not the man chased by television cameras and featured on nightly news programs about a missing intern later found dead.

“The atmosphere [in my district] is like the fog has lifted,” Cardoza said.

The feeling in Washington is similar, Cardoza insisted, saying: “There’s no longer a black eye on California. There were a lot of Members in the House in both parties who just wanted the noise to stop.”

Condit, for most of his tenure, was a relatively low-profile Member who carved out a niche as a Blue Dog representing rural California interests. He was a virtual unknown nationally until the summer of 2001, when Levy turned up missing. Her remains were later discovered in Washington’s Rock Creek Park.

Condit didn’t want to give up his seat easily, turning the primary into the nation’s most high profile and among the most bitter. Condit’s family accused Cardoza, a former Condit aide, of betrayal, calling him a traitor for running against a man who they believe helped launch his career.

The general election, where Cardoza faced off against Republican state Sen. Dick Monteith, was hardly a cakewalk either. Monteith and fellow Republicans charged that Cardoza was too liberal for the rural 18th district.

Cardoza acknowledges the pain of the election, saying that both Condit and Monteith had been “good friends.” Cardoza and Condit haven’t spoken since last spring’s primary.

“I never coveted Gary’s job, it was about doing the right thing,” Cardoza says. “It was clear he couldn’t win — or even if he could win, he couldn’t represent the district well.

“In a lot of ways, the district didn’t have a Congressman for over a year,” Cardoza says. “The staff was inundated with the media blitz.”

In trying to find his place in the House, Cardoza lobbied for committee assignments on Agriculture and Resources and sought to join the conservative Blue Dog Coalition. Cardoza said he expected to feel awkward joining the group at first, given that Condit had helped establish it, but was gladly proven wrong.

“I didn’t want to just follow in the footsteps of my predecessor,” Cardoza stressed. “I want to chart my own course.”

But Cardoza said that even though he shares many of the same political leanings as Condit, they approach lawmaking differently.

“Gary had an outsider style,” Cardoza said. “He was always looking for ways to separate himself. We have similar points of view, but I believe that if you are in the room, I can better advocate for my positions.”

He said he learned that after his years as state Assemblyman, where he served three terms, recently as chairman of the Agriculture Committee and later the Rules Committee.

Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.), one of the leaders of the Blue Dogs, said Cardoza has been warmly accepted in his group, despite the fact the group liked and respected Condit. He called him an “outstanding legislator” with political philosophies that fit well with the conservative Democrats.

“He’s fitting in well,” he said. “We’re getting to know Dennis. And we like him.”

Other Members appear to be feeling similarly, according to two California Democrats, Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Grace Napolitano, both of whom endorsed Cardoza over Condit in the primary.

Lofgren said that, as she expected, Cardoza made an easy transition into the House: “It was seamless for him to walk in.”

She added there’s a sense of relief that Cardoza has helped Congress finally move past the damaging final months of Condit’s term.

“It’s nice not to have to walk through a bank of cameras looking for a story,” she said.

Napolitano said Cardoza, through his experience and hard work, has “earned his place and paid his dues.”

“The fact he came through those conditions is lamentable,” she said. “But he’s fit right in. It’s not a problem. Politics is politics and it’s time to move forward.”

Cardoza is even finding favor with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a fellow Californian who at one time endorsed Condit. Pelosi and Cardoza share the same home state but differ vastly in ideology.

“She’s been very gracious,” he said.

Even though the topic still follows him, Cardoza doesn’t shy away from questions about Condit.

“I’m used to it,” he said.

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