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Tea Party Sent Buerkle Into Establishment Favor

In the corner of Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle’s Longworth office, three recently framed newspaper clippings lean against the wall, not yet displayed for visitors.

Buerkle reaches for the one with the headline “Voters pick sides in a race full of contrasts.” The October 2010 story decisively predicted that Rep. Dan Maffei would win re-election in New York’s 25th district. In a bold font, it showed the results of a Siena poll that found her trailing Maffei by 12 points just three weeks before the election.

Holding up the frame, the Republican freshman says, “I never thought of not winning.”

In one of the closest races in the nation, which took three weeks to finalize, she edged Maffei by 648 votes.

One year later, she faces a different set of challenges. Committee work quickly piles up. Concerned constituents demand her attention. And, of course, there’s always campaign fundraising.

But she approaches freshman year challenges in the House with the same attitude.

Asked about her first impressions of working at the Capitol, she says she was pleasantly surprised by the culture. “The caliber of people in Congress is very high,” she tells Roll Call, sitting at the edge of her chair and clad in a pink blazer.

She even downplays the challenges of being a newcomer in the House, where it can take years to gain political influence, not to mention name recognition.

“I don’t think there is something like being at the bottom of the totem pole here in Washington,” she says. “As a Member of Congress, there is no bottom.”

Buerkle’s comments might be surprising given that an unpopular Congress receives few compliments these days, but she has a few things to brag about after just 11 months of service.

In October, the House passed with bipartisan support a bill she sponsored to change the way Veterans Affairs hospitals report sexual assaults. Add to that the fact that she recently received a presidential appointment to serve as a Congressional representative to the United Nations General Assembly, a rare feat for someone who just got here.

Buerkle plays a distinct role in the Republican freshman class. She rode the tea party wave to Washington, winning an upstate New York district that leans Democratic on promises of reducing the size of government and repealing the health care overhaul.

Buerkle describes the new Republican freshmen as the “most inspirational” group she’s encountered in Washington. “Many left the private sector, left successful careers, to come down here because of what they believed in,” she says.

But during the past year, she’s shown that she has a different style of legislating from many of her first-year colleagues.

While many have gone out of their way to establish themselves as Washington outsiders — even going so far as sleeping in their offices — Buerkle makes it sound like she enjoys working inside the Beltway.

And in contrast to her colleagues’ hard-line rhetoric railing against Washington spending, Buerkle talks about the importance of cutting the deficit to preserve the American dream.

On major budgetary votes this year, she has stayed true to her tea party philosophy, voting against the final debt ceiling legislation and in favor of the balanced budget amendment.

But in the battles that have split the Republican Conference, she has shown that she’s not willing to step out of line with Republican leadership.

In April and September, for instance, she did not join a group of conservative freshmen voting “no” on previously routine votes for stopgap measures to fund the government. She did not partake in freshman threats of a government shutdown to send a message about government spending or to try to upset the status quo in Washington.

Buerkle has benefited before from being chummy with Republican leadership.

Her credibility as an underdog candidate on the campaign trail came from her connections. She recalls spending time at the back of small town parades, knowing full well that few people took her campaign seriously.

Along the way, though, she received help from top Republicans. She points to a visit from then-House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), in particular, as boosting her standing with voters. It was “an acknowledgement that people were starting to believe, ‘Maybe she could win.'” As a candidate, she says, “you would just never turn down that kind of support.”

Even if getting it meant squeezing Boehner’s visit into her daughter’s wedding day. “We planned this big luncheon for 11:30 [a.m.], and the wedding was at 1:00 [p.m.]. … He arrived there, and I was sort of overdressed for a luncheon. I was in my mother-of-the-bride garb,” she says, laughing.

She had to leave early to run to the wedding, but Boehner stayed to greet her district’s voters.

In the past few months, Buerkle has forged bonds with other senior leaders in the House. For instance, her work with Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.) helped land her the presidential appointment to the U.N.

Buerkle describes how she caught the eye of Ros-Lehtinen. “She had observed my positions and knew where I was coming from. … She referred it to Speaker Boehner, and he referred it to the president.”

Ros-Lehtinen praised Buerkle in a statement for having “demonstrated her commitment to ensuring that U.S. taxpayer dollars will not go to waste on U.N. programs” and for being a strong voice on the committee for “real U.N. reform.”

Although Buerkle’s role is a ceremonial one, it has helped her build a reputation for foreign policy work at the Capitol, getting her a plum assignment co-hosting a Members’ briefing on Palestine in November.

But Buerkle hasn’t achieved success through relationships alone. Those who know Buerkle well aren’t surprised by her recent journey from underdog candidate to an accomplished Congresswoman since she’s started from square one before. At the age of 40, she made a major career change.

“It was apparent to me that a mother of six and a nurse was not taken seriously [in public policy debates] because I did not have the credentials,” says Buerkle, now 60.

So she got them. She earned a law degree though a nontraditional Syracuse University program and embarked on a new career that led her, among other positions, to a spot on the Syracuse Common Council and a job as assistant state attorney general.

When she told her kids that she was running for office, they weren’t surprised. “They thought, ‘It’s just Mom,'” she says.

“But when I won and I came to Washington, I think it impressed them,” she says, showing off a picture of her grandchildren, who each share her bright blond hair, standing on the Speaker’s balcony.

Buerkle faces a tough year ahead. She’ll meet Maffei in a rematch, one that could be complicated by state redistricting.

But she certainly sounds upbeat: “Just being given the opportunity to be a part of this body, to have a voice in the government, as difficult as a decision might be or a vote might be, still you are part of a process. And it really is such an honor.”

Correction: Dec. 6

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the New York Republican wears pink heels.

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