Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., and family members at a ceremonial swearing-in with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., and family members at a ceremonial swearing-in with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

An Immigrant’s Journey to Congress

An inside look at swearing-in day.

When Tomasz Malinowski arrived on American shores at the age of 6, speaking nary a word of English, few could have imagined that one day he would be sworn in as a member of Congress. But that happened last Thursday, in a highly emotional day for Tom, his Polish-American mother, his daughter and his extended family—of which I am a member.

His was one of many compelling stories playing out on Capitol Hill as the largest freshman class elected to the House of Representatives in many years was sworn in. The class included a record number of women, the youngest woman ever elected to the House, the first Muslim women to serve and many people who had put themselves on the line to run grueling, exhausting races.

A day spent in the Capitol complex, watching and participating in ceremonies surrounding the advent of the 116th Congress, provided a behind-the-scenes look at the organized chaos that brought the new Democratic House majority to power.

Crowds celebrating the newcomers, both Democrat and Republican, spilled out into the corridors of congressional office buildings from morning to evening. Many of the new legislators opened their doors to their supporters at 10 a.m. or before. In fact, these buildings are always open to the public, with only the requirement of passing through a metal detector as one enters. A line of perhaps 50 people was waiting to get into the Cannon House Office Building when we arrived, but it moved quickly.

Our family group was invited to show up at 11 a.m., because Tom, already in demand by the media, had two television interviews scheduled earlier. He did five or six during the day, including one on MSNBC.

Day of the Pins

Tom and other members of the House were sporting handsome, large, enameled red and gold lapel pins indicating their status. And they weren’t the only ones whose lapels were so bedecked.

Indeed, it seemed virtually everyone felt the need to say something on their clothing. It’s not a new phenomenon in Washington, where many pols always stick an American flag pin in their lapels for fear anyone might think them less than patriotic. But the plethora and variety of adornments was striking.

Across the hall from Tom’s office, a dozen people clustered in front of another member’s office. One sturdy man in a blue suit looked like he might be a legislator, but when asked, said he was not. What’s the lapel pin? “Oh, it’s just the bank’s,” he replied. What bank? “Our bank, you know. All the corporate reps are wearing their pins today.”

So the day of the lapel pin was also the day of the lobbyist. It was not only the first day of lobbying in the actual lobbies and corridors of Congress, but also a very good day to do it. Members’ doors were open, and the fledgling and incomplete staffs of freshmen were fielding business cards and introductions from all sorts of interests. In Tom’s office, for example, two lapel pin-wearers came in to represent the concerns of the New Jersey Broadcasters Association (over-the air, not cable networks). The group’s CEO, Paul S. Rotella, offered his services if the congressman had any problems with the networks.

Raymond Adams, a senior air traffic controller, was there as well, sporting the pin of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He leads the Federal Aviation Administration’s controller workforce at Newark Airport, and his overworked crew is not currently being paid because of the government shutdown. Citing safety concerns, NATCA has called for a quick end to the closure.

Pols of varying types were clustering around as well. One of them, Bette Jane Kowalski, sported the pin of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders. She is vice chair of that elected body, and was an early supporter of Tom’s candidacy. And members themselves were handing out lapel pins: Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., head of the Congressional Bike Caucus, distributed one featuring a small fluorescent bicycle.

Tom’s chief of staff, Colston Reid, cheerfully juggled the demands for his time all morning, until she locked the door to the office suite and we all headed over to the Capitol.

Swearing Them In

For 20 minutes, Reid led us through the maze of underground corridors that connect the Capitol and surrounding House and Senate office buildings. Finally, we reached a tougher security checkpoint and then an elevator that whisked us up to a corridor running along the galleries overlooking the House floor. Members had already been sworn in and taken their first few votes.

But that swearing-in, just after noon, was just the first of the day. Two more were to come.

We were soon led to Statuary Hall. Amid the milling throngs, Tom found our group and led us through a line that snaked into the adjacent Rayburn room for a ceremonial swearing-in with newly elected House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. As she stood next to Tom, his hand on the Bible, she said to our party of 11, “We are so lucky to have someone with Tom’s experience, especially in foreign affairs, joining us. He will do great things in the House.”

The third swearing-in came in Memorial Hall on the first floor of the James Madison annex of the Library of Congress. Officiating this time was Pelosi’s top lieutenant, House Majority Leader of the House Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Hoyer was an early supporter of Tom’s. In front of a large marble statue of Madison, a rabbi gave a moving invocation and then Hoyer administered the oath of office before a crowd of perhaps 300 people who had come down from New Jersey to wish Tom well.

An American Journey

Tom is now 53 and as American as can be. But one only imagine how apprehensive he must have been when he first arrived in this country.

His mother, Joanna Rostropowicz, was moving to the United States to marry my father, who lived in New York City and Princeton. Young Tomasz was sent straight into the Princeton public schools. At the age of 10, he went with his mother to the courthouse in Newark to be sworn in as a new citizen of the United States. There he took an oath whose words he repeated upon becoming a member of Congress:

I, Tom Malinowski, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

That was a moment of high emotion for Tom, his mother recalls--and he spoke movingly of the two oaths during his remarks in the Madison Library.

Tom went on to attend the University of California at Berkeley and then won a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. There he met a Burmese refugee whom he later married. They have a Polish-Burmese-American daughter named Emily. Tom’s stepfather, my father, Blair Clark, was long active in Democratic politics, and Tom learned a love of the game. He went to work for New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which led to a job in the State Department writing speeches for Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, Tom moved to the National Security Council staff at the White House and traveled the world on Air Force One writing remarks for the president. He later served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary of State for democracy, human rights and labor.

In his television interviews, and in his remarks to supporters at the end of the day, Tom declared himself not in a “celebratory but in a somber mood.” He talked about the government shutdown, people going without paychecks and trash piling up in the national parks. He said the Democrats now “have a fragile foothold in one House of Congress,” and suggested that their job in the next two years would not be to “transform America but to preserve it.”

Tom’s journey was celebrated not just in the United States but also in Poland. He is the first son of Poland to be elected to Congress since before World War I. And his mother is a minor celebrity there, having published six novels in her native country. A Polish television correspondent arranged to interview her outside of the Cannon building on swearing-in day.

Tom is one of a handful of new lawmakers whose elections have resonated beyond their districts and states. Their national, and even international, appeal can only strengthen the reputation of our durable democracy.