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Freshman's House office search foreshadows the legislator he might be

By Dan Merica, CNN
December 3, 2012 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
U.S. Rep.-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas studies a spreadsheet in a down moment during the office selection process. U.S. Rep.-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas studies a spreadsheet in a down moment during the office selection process.
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Congressional freshman, Tom Cotton
Congressional freshman, Tom Cotton
Congressional freshman, Tom Cotton
Congressional freshman, Tom Cotton
Congressional freshman, Tom Cotton
Congressional freshman, Tom Cotton
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tom Cotton is second Republican to win Arkansas 4th District since Reconstruction
  • In searching for an office, Cotton gave a glimpse of who he would be as a legislator
  • Cotton is a Harvard law grad, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Considered an up-an-comer, he dismissed talk of higher office in 2014

Washington (CNN) -- Eagerness fills the room -- nearly 70 freshman congressman sit and wait to begin the process of selecting their first House office. Most of the fresh faces exchange pleasantries and glad-hand one another in anticipation of the drawing.

But Republican Congressman-elect Tom Cotton of Arkansas sits quietly, hunched over in his chair, looking at a mix of maps and papers he has assembled -- all aimed to optimize the search process. Each available office is listed on a spreadsheet in front of him which is just waiting to be scrawled on.

Even when incoming Rep. Julia Brownley of California picks No. 1 in the lottery -- which elicits applause and a few "Hey, yo" shouts from the back of the room -- Cotton claps but remains focused.

Cotton has devised a rating system and applied it to his spreadsheet. The offices will be rated from one to four on a number of factors -- size of the office, availability for a conference room and view. It is also important that the office be close to Rayburn -- a building considered the power center of the House, due to the powerful lawmakers who have officers there and the number of committee rooms inside.

Cotton, 35, is looking for the perfect office -- down to the color of the walls and drapes -- even though these bottom of the barrel selections are unlikely to meet all of his expectations.

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Freshmen generally get the worst offices in the House. Once more, senior members have moved up and returning "freshman" -- people who were once in the House but lost an election at some point -- have selected their offices. The few offices that are left generally have noticeable downsides.

"Mr. Cotton drew number 37," says the events reader.

Cotton and his staff were then off, running from office to office. His nearly 6'5" stride makes the pace frenetic.

"I don't usually walk this fast," he joked while leading a march up Independence Avenue.

It is hard to believe this is out of the ordinary for Cotton, a marathoner and former Army Ranger.

Cotton and his staff visit nearly all available offices in both Cannon and Longworth House Office buildings over the next few hours.

Cotton appears to have an aversion to elevators. He opts for stairs - two at a time, forcing his shorter-legged staffers to really move it to keep up.

Cotton's office search speaks volumes about the path that brought him to Congress -- and possibly the legislator he may become.

'Who is that?'

The offices that Cotton will be touring will soon be vacated by people leaving or moving to better ones because of their seniority. A typical suite has the member's office, an entry room with desks and area for legislative staff. Though this is the standard, layout, color and size can vary.

After looking at the first few offices, the pattern is set for how Cotton will rate his choices. He begins by quickly and deliberately opening the office front door and smiling as he passes a puzzled staffer.

"Hi," he says. "I am a new member of Congress looking at offices. Is that the member's office?"

Cotton knows the answer. But before the young staffer can answer, he's in the member's office, switching his focus from his spreadsheet to the size and layout.

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Cotton quickly scans each office, eliciting quizzical glances from occupants who don't recognize him as a new member of Congress.

That shouldn't be a surprise because he wasn't expected to be here.

When he got into the 4th Congressional District race in Arkansas, he trailed in some polls by more than 35 points. On November 6, he won by more than 20%.

But while he was a long shot at first, many Republican operatives say Cotton's resume should have tipped off a future in politics.

He graduated from Harvard with honors with a degree in government and then went back to the Ivy League school for his law degree. For a short time, Cotton clerked at the U.S. Court of Appeals and worked for a law firm in Washington.

But he decided to serve his country frollowing the September 2001 terror attacks on the United States.

Cotton served five years of active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne in Baghdad and an operations officer with a reconstruction team in eastern Afghanistan.

When he joined the Army initially, Cotton turned down its suggestion he join as an attorney with the Judge Advocate General. He insisted that he serve in the infantry.

In many ways, it is impossible not to look at Cotton through the prism of the Army.

Sure, he uses military lingo in conversation, but even his staff reflects his Army service. Chief of Staff Doug Coutts served with him in Iraq and was the first to sign up with his campaign.

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And if his service helped lead him to Congress, Cotton says it will help him alter the partisan divides in the House, too.

"I think I can help build consensus," Cotton said. "That spirit of teamwork and discipline and dealing with imperfect information, having to make choices between not good and bad but better and worse."

In particular, he points to what he learned about counter insurgency in Afghanistan as a way he can help with bipartisanship.

"You are working very closely with people from a different culture, different language, different part of the world but you build common bonds around shared priorities," Cotton said.

"Sometimes you may disagree and sometimes you don't share the priority entirely, but you just have to be open-minded and good willed."

Cotton's talk of bipartisanship fits his district -- he is the second Republican since Reconstruction to represent the Arkansas 4th, which covers nearly the southern half of the state and includes former President Bill Clinton's birthplace of Hope.

Future aspirations

Somewhere in between the office hunt, Cotton took time to shake hands with older, more established congressman. Cotton's most charismatic moments of the day come in these conversations; he seems to value the interactions, no matter how short, with other members of the House. A sign, it seems, of the way he honors the legislative body.

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But some in his home state of Arkansas see bigger plans for the man who can't be called congressman until he's sworn-in in January.

This last election was big for Republicans in the state as they easily swept all four seats in the House. The shift couldn't come at a worse time for Democrats.

The state's popular Democratic Governor Mike Beebe is out for 2014 due to term limits and the notable Democratic Sen. Mark Pryor is also up for reelection. With the momentum from 2012 at their back, Republicans hope to make gains in those two races.

And some see Cotton as the person to lead this charge -- many in Arkansas political circles and blogs from the state have already floated his name for both seats.

But Red State's editor-in-chief Erick Erickson says Cotton has yet to prove himself in Congress and challenged the congressman-elect to lead, not follow.

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"The GOP in Congress doesn't really stand for a whole lot these days. I'll be interested to see if Tom Cotton can help them change that as a younger face with conservative conviction," said Erickson, also a CNN contributor.

"Some conservatives fear that, having rallied to him early, he'll turn out like a lot of tea party members from 2010 and align so closely with leadership as to not stand out except as peddlers of the leadership agenda. It'll be interesting to see if he sets his own course," he said.

Cotton laughs at the suggestion that he is looking ahead.

"People have big plans for my life, they just don't always tell me what they are," Cotton said, using a line his chief of staff said he would use to answer questions about his boss' future. "People are talking about 2014 and years beyond, I am just trying to pick out what paint I get."

From Dardanelle, Arkansas, to D.C.

For some freshman, the process of leaving their districts and moving to Washington can be daunting. New apartment, new office, new people -- very little is familiar.

As in the rest of life, however, Cotton says he is prepared and familiar with the nation's capital.

Not only did he work at the Washington law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher before going to Iraq, he also served as a member of the Old Guard at Arlington National Cemetery, the group of infantrymen that escorts caskets.

"I have literally run all over the city, in the morning, during PT [physical training] hours," Cotton said. "So I know the streets very well."

He has leased a "small studio" on Capitol Hill and says he hasn't eaten out in Washington enough to like anything but the House cafeteria. And though he is unmarried and without children, he says he plans to go home a lot.

Cotton will begin to build his staff, lay out his legislative priorities and work through the committee selection process in the next few weeks. When asked about what committees he would like, he listed a wide swath.

"Financial services, the arm services, budget, foreign affairs," he listed. "There is really no bad committees in my opinion. So many committees would be good for the district and the state."

Whatever committees he lands on, it is clear that Cotton wants to become a leader -- and have influence.

"I think it is just a matter of working hard and mastering your issues and trying to become a thought leader on certain subjects so that you can help influence and persuade your colleagues," Cotton concluded.

And, yes, he will attempt to become that thought leader from an office -- in Cannon.

After huffing it around the Capitol complex and carefully updating his spreadsheet, it's the congressman-elect's turn to select his first House office.

Cotton ended up with 415 Cannon, which executive assistant Eliza Baker said was very high on his list because its accessibility and meeting space would be the best office for serving constituents.

His staff is thrilled -- and likely tired -- and Cotton is ready for his next congressional mission.

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