Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2007 | Features

Life on the Hill

By Tom Nugent
Bruce Braley Freshman Democrat Bruce Braley adjusts to the fast-paced life of a congressman.

Washington, DC—The Government Reform Committee hearing on the status of the Presidential Libraries has just ended, and now the freshman congressman from Iowa is racing through a tunnel beneath the historic Sam Rayburn House Office Building.

"On this job, you run all day long!" says the newly elected Bruce Braley, 84JD, as he zooms through a narrow concrete passageway and darts aboard a Members Only elevator. "The pace is grueling...but when you decide to run for Congress, you have to accept the fact that you're going to be working as hard as you can, probably for 16 hours a day."

Bruce Baley Freshman Congressman Bruce Baley interrupts his busy schedule for a photo shoot on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and in his office.

The elevator doors zip open, and he's moving again. Now he's flying down a marble-floored corridor toward his office in 1408 Longworth, where a half dozen Iowa hog farmers are waiting to tell him their problems and a harried staffer is standing by to confer with him on the staggeringly complex set of amendments that will be introduced on the House floor within the hour, as debate resumes on the National Security Foreign Investment bill.

Welcome to Capitol Hill, Bruce Braley.

"Yeah, this is a challenge, all right," laughs the 49-year-old trial lawyer from Waterloo, as he pounds down the hallway. "When you start your first term, you know you're going to be tested to the limit.

"After you arrive in Washington, you suddenly realize: The only thing they didn't prepare you for is what you're gonna have to face after you win the election. In my case, I had to set up four different [Congressional] offices...then hire 16 staff people from more than 1,000 resumes...then go through multiple orientations...then figure out a $1.5 million office budget...and then close down a law practice that I'd been running for 23 years.

"And I had to do most of that—along with finding and renting and furnishing an apartment —during the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's!"

Laughing again, he skids to a stop outside his office door. "The workload is immense, and the schedule is relentless. But I think all of us first-termers feel confident that we're gonna make it, because we've got all these terrific people from the party helping us."

He pauses for a moment, with his hand on the doorknob. "I think it also helps to be very flexible, and to realize that you can't waste energy on the many things you can't control—like decision-making among party leaders on both sides of the aisle, or what comes out of the executive branch.

"Your first job, day in and day out, is to serve the needs of all of your constituents, which is a huge assignment in itself. It's tough—but I do think it's manageable. You fall into a rhythm, after a while. You learn to pace yourself. And, above all, you keep your sense of humor."

Ask Braley what makes him different from the 41 other freshman Democrats who are also struggling to adjust to the brave new world of Capitol Hill, and the new kid on the block doesn't miss a beat: "I do think I'm a little different," he says with a glint of determination, "primarily because of my work history back in Iowa. I was the kind of student who took four years of shop in high school. Then I worked my way through college and law school doing minimum-wage jobs like washing dishes, fixing roads, baling hay.

"I think my determination to work harder than anyone else [in Congress]—in terms of standing up for my district—is what sets me apart."

He means it, too. "Bruce is convinced that he won election in a very competitive district for one basic reason," says one of his staffers. "He out-worked his opponents in Iowa, and now he's determined to out-work everybody in Washington! That's a huge asset for a congressman who wants to make an impact."

Less than two months into the history-making Democratically controlled 110th Congress, in fact, the indefatigable Braley has already nabbed a coveted subcommittee chairmanship. He's now directing the Contracting and Technology Subcommittee of the House Small Business Committee, which makes him the first freshman congressman in the history of Iowa to chair his own subcommittee. Braley won the much-sought-after chairmanship with an adroit and persistent lobbying effort aimed at committee chairwoman Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), who chose him over several other candidates.

Braley says he was pleased to have won the skirmish for the subcommittee chairmanship for one key reason: it will allow him to "help small businesses in rural and small-town Iowa take better advantage of technological resources, so that they can grow and prosper."

Bruce Braley With not a moment to waste, Braley updates two of his staffers as he hurries to another meeting.

In addition, Braley has already introduced his first bill—an education measure, the NEW ERA Act, that will provide funds to train workers in renewable energy, including many in Iowa's fast-growing biofuels industry. By co-sponsoring (with 52 other House members) the January 9 House Resolution opposing the sending of 21,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq, he also threw his support fully behind the Democratic bid to end the Iraq War and bring the troops home.

How's that for getting off to a running start as a freshman on Capitol Hill? Particularly as one who has never held political office before.

Drop by the Waterloo lawyer's crowded and frenetic office near the U.S. Capitol Building on a typical weekday afternoon, and you'll probably find him perched on the edge of his work-crammed desk, while firing a steady barrage of questions at his apparently tireless staff.

"You've got the Iowa Farm Bureau folks and the high school students from Waterloo," says Sarah Benzing, the congressman's smiling but steely-eyed chief of staff. "Oh, and the amendments on the Foreign Investment bill will start voting in about 30 minutes."

"Okay, great," barks the lawmaker. "Jeff, what've you got?"

"Picture-taking with the teachers from Dubuque, front steps of the Capitol," snaps press aide Jeff Giertz, "and you can continue the magazine interview while you're walking over there."

The congressman nods and stands up. He's slender and athletic-looking, without a speck of gray in his jet-black hair. Clad in an inexpensive but elegantly fitted charcoal gray suit and a gold-patterned tie, he cuts a reservedly stylish figure as he paces around the crowded office.

On the walls above his head, two powerful photos loom. One is a glowering portrait of trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. Says Braley: "I admire him because of the way he fought for scientific truth, and for his clients."

The other photo is a soulful image of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. Says Braley: "I love his music because it's full of feeling. It has a mysterious energy that's difficult to define."

Born in Grinnell and then raised in tiny Brooklyn, Iowa, as the grandson of Depression-era farmers who often struggled to survive by sharecropping a few precious acres, Braley gained a B.A. degree in political science from Iowa State University. He arrived on the UI campus in the fall of 1980, having decided to attend the College of Law and then to emulate his hero, Clarence Darrow.

Because he was especially close to his father, Byard Braley—a World War II hero who joined the Marine Corps at 17 and landed on Iwo Jima the same day the Marines raised the flag atop Mount Suribachi—the budding law student was devastated when he learned (during his first year of legal studies) that his dad had died suddenly of a heart attack in Brooklyn.

Stunned by the blow, Braley found it difficult to keep up with his studies and nearly dropped out of law school. But then he got a "wonderful break"—when a well-known Iowa City attorney, Jay Honohan, 60JD, agreed to take him on as an intern. "He was a terrific mentor and a great friend, and he showed me why the law was such an honorable, useful profession," Braley recalls today.

Bruce Braley

For his part, Honohan remembers the newly elected congressman as "a very competent and very dedicated young lawyer who really cared about his craft. But he also had a warm heart, and a lot of sensitivity to other people. When my daughter turned 16, he talked a few of the other interns into going over to her high school and serenading her with a 'Happy Birthday' song."

What followed Braley's graduation was a meteoric career in which he built a thriving practice in Waterloo. At the firm of Dutton, Braun, Staack, and Hellman, he says he found himself surrounded by partners who gave him the opportunity to take risks and handle challenging cases.

By the late 1990s, Braley was often being urged by colleagues to run for public office. Elected president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association in 2004, he began exploring the possibility of running for the congressional seat in the First District, which includes most of northeastern Iowa. After discussing the option with his wife, Carolyn, and his three teenage children and winning their support, he made his move in 2006 and eventually prevailed in a long and fiercely contested campaign against Republican businessman Mike Whalen.

Carolyn, a public high school teacher in Waterloo who works there all week while Bruce labors away on Capitol Hill (and flies home to Waterloo each weekend), felt "a little nervous" about the campaign at first, but soon became Braley's most devoted and enthusiastic supporter.

On November 7, 2006, around 10:30 p.m., the two of them learned that all the hard work had paid off. Bruce Braley was going to Congress.

Ask Braley to tell you why he agreed to live this life of nonstop labor—the life of endless cell phone calls and photo ops and stale tuna fish sandwiches eaten in hasty gulps—and he'll say quite sincerely that it all goes back to the example his father set for him on Iwo Jima.

"When Dad came home from World War II, he taught us kids that we were obligated to serve our country, one way or another," he recalls. "I believe that, and by believing it, I honor his memory. We've got some horrific problems in this country—the war in Iraq, the environmental pollution, health care for 40 million uninsured—and they aren't going to be fixed until all of us start taking a hand and working on them."