To the Victor Goes the Spoils

"To the victor goes the spoils" is an old saw often used in politics.

But especially if you're victorious late.

In this case, the "victor" is Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX). Farenthold unseated 28-year veteran Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) by just 799 votes last fall. Many political handicappers view Farenthold's win to be the biggest upset of the 2010 midterm elections as Ortiz never faced a competitive contest since his first campaign in 1982.

And the "spoils" refer to suite 2110 of the Rayburn House Office Building, across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

A hallmark of every House freshman office is the cramped working quarters. The offices are often jerry-rigged to squeeze in aides and interns among snug desks, printers and computers. Some freshman lawmakers are relegated to the top floor of the Cannon House Office Building. Some elevators don't even reach that high. Due to the less-than-hospitable workspaces, some consider offices in Cannon to be "Congressional Siberia." In fact, many House members who work on the top floor of Cannon can't wait to trade in their "wrong-side-of-the-track" addresses for a better suite as they earn seniority.

If this were the board game Monopoly, most freshmen toil on the equivalent of Baltic or Mediterranean Avenues.

And rookie Congressman Blake Farenthold has scored a workspace on Park Place.

You see, Farenthold has the most-commodious office of any freshman lawmaker. For starters, it's on the first floor of Rayburn, which is a much more fashionable address than the fifth floor of Cannon. The office sprawls across 1,183 square feet. And perhaps the highlight is a commanding view of the Capitol Dome across Independence Avenue.

So how did Farenthold score such coup?

He won late.

Because the contest between Farenthold and Ortiz was undecided and headed for a recount, the House Administration Committee wouldn't allow Farenthold to go through the freshman office lottery in mid-November. That's where all freshmen members gather in a room to draw lots. Those with the best numbers get to pick the best offices. That is, what's considered best for lowly freshmen. The most prime real estate is already off the market, gobbled up long ago by the old guard. Some longtime lawmakers have squatted on the same Congressional offices for decades.

So by the time Farenthold won, all other freshmen were assigned offices.

And Farenthold didn't win until Ortiz conceded, days after the office lottery.

As a senior lawmaker, Ortiz long ago secured an exclusive Congressional office. So with all of the other freshmen already assigned offices, there was no place else for Farenthold to go.

Except up.

Way up.

To 2110 Rayburn, Ortiz's old office, one of the most-elite office spaces on Capitol Hill.

It was the last office available.


"(The House) assumes the incumbent wins," said Farenthold in between casting his first votes as a Member of Congress late Wednesday afternoon. In other words, Ortiz got to hold onto his office until the race was called, one way or the other.

Once Farenthold was declared the winner, the House had to find a place to put him.

"There were no spare offices," Farenthold said.

Who else occupies similar quarters as Farenthold? Congressional heavyweights, that's who. The office of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) in 2204 Rayburn boasts a spectacular view of the Capitol Dome. Waxman has been in Congress since 1976. Down the hall from Farenthold is Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI) in 2107 Rayburn. Kildee was Waxman's classmate.

Farenthold hasn't had much time to stare out the huge, picture frame windows yet. But he's philosophical of how this bizarre twist of fate dispatched him to such extraordinary working quarters. He suggests the office might help him keep his priorities straight.

"I actually enjoy having the Capitol view," said Farenthold. "We started referring to it as the trillion dollar view. The view reminds me we're here, trying to reign (government) in."

There's precedent for this. In 2006, former-Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-AZ) squared off with then-sitting Rep. JD Hayworth (R-AZ). Political analysts viewed the race as a tossup. And on election night, most news organizations anointed Mitchell the winner.

But citing uncounted absentee and provisional ballots, Hayworth didn't initially concede. And Mitchell didn't claim victory until late November.

Mitchell found himself in much the same position as Farenthold. The House had already assigned offices for the rest of the freshmen. So Mitchell was left with only one option: Hayworth's office.

Hayworth served six terms in the House and had an office on the third floor of Rayburn. It wasn't quite the Taj Mahal that Farenthold will enjoy. But it was certainly an upgrade compared to most other freshmen.

However, there is a downside to securing such a swank office.

"I'm a little behind," conceded Farenthold. He noted his freshmen classmates had a head start on him as they prepared for the 112th Congress. "It was a bit of a scurry."

Farenthold's office will always boast the view. But it remains a work in progress. File folders are scattered on desks. Nary a piece of artwork hangs on the lonely walls.

That will come in time.

But Farenthold says he would trade in the new office for having to sweat out his election results for weeks.

"I would much rather be in a broom closet and have had it decided," Farenthold said.

And Farenthold may yet see that broom closet.

The anomaly that enabled the Texas Republican win such a great suite this time won't help Farenthold keep this office if he wins re-election in 2012. Farenthold would have seniority over the 2012 freshman class. But he would be dead-even with his peers to qualify for a "sophomore" office. That means Farenthold is in line for a serious downgrade.

Which is why some of Farenthold's fellow freshman have office envy.

"They remind me it's only mine for two years," Farenthold says of his colleagues.

But the Congressman jokes that there may be one surefire way to bring fellow freshmen into the fold.

"Hey, the party is in my office," Farenthold jests.