New Kid in Town

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

WHEN YOU'RE A FRESHMAN IN CONGRESS, it's easy to be overwhelmed. Take Blanche Lambert, a Democrat and the first woman to be elected from Arkansas's rural First District. In her initial weeks on Capitol Hill, Lambert has been caught in a blizzard of briefing papers, orientation meetings—and 1,500 résumés sent by eager applicants for the eight full-time positions in her office. Don't ask Lambert when she will finally settle into her new Alexandria, Va., apartment. "I'm still tripping over boxes," she says. With her heavy congressional workload, Lambert spends only about six hours a night at home. "I don't know how much longer I can keep up."

She'll have to keep up, if only because the crop of 110 new legislators—the largest freshman class since 1948—is packed with newcomers as eager as Lambert, 32, to make a difference. She rejects the idea that first-termers should be seen and not heard and insists that the aggressive new class will make a real impact. "I believe in this system. It worked for 200 years, and it can work again. It just needs some new blood and new ideas every once in a while."

So far Lambert has been lucky. For example, she was the last person to show up at the House office lottery—but still drew No. 4, good enough for a large and comfortable three-room office in the distinguished Long-worth Building. And she has already managed to schmooze with the President—trading tales about trout fishing in Arkansas with fellow Razor-back Bill Clinton at a White House reception. Like many of her colleagues, she's ready to reform and rejuvenate Congress. "We can't afford to spend 10 years on a piece of legislation. It's time to move, come together and do something."

But Lambert has also made her own luck. In 1983, after graduating from Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, she was part of Arkansas Rep. Bill Alexander's office, just one of hundreds of low-paid Hill staffers. She soon tired of doing glorified clerical work and quit the job. She worked in a Laura Ashley shop in Georgetown for a spell, joined a law firm as a researcher and eventually worked as a lobbyist on environmental and health care issues. However, Lambert dreamed of occupying Alexander's seat herself—and in 1991 headed back to Arkansas to try to defeat the 12-term Congressman.

To campaign, she moved back in with parents Jordan and Mary on their 1,500-acre rice and soybean farm in Helena, where she was raised with brother Jordan III and sisters Anne and Mary, now a Hollywood video director (Madonna's Borderline). "Last year alone, four of my cousins had to move out of the area because they couldn't find work," she says. "I always knew I would want to return home to raise a family, and running for office was the best way to change things there for the better."

At first, though, some of the good ol' boys in the district had trouble envisioning a "girl" in the job—especially one who played Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" at political rallies. So Lambert changed her ways. She replaced rock and roll with Sousa tunes and bellied up to the table at countless fish fries, frogs'-legs dinners and even barbecued raccoon suppers. Fate also provided some assistance. Incumbent Alexander turned out to be one of the worst abusers of the House bank, writing 487 checks for funds he didn't have in his account. Though a poll showed Alexander with a five-point lead a week before the primary, Lambert decisively beat her old boss 61 percent to 39 percent. She breezed to easy victory Nov. 3 against Republican Terry Hayes. (In fact, Lambert's 70 percent tally edged Bill Clinton's home state vote of 68 percent.)

Being in Washington has its hazards—professional as well as personal. Lambert, who has been dating a Little Rock physician named Steve for two years now, must plan a commuter relationship. The new Congresswoman is also eager not to repeat the mistakes of her predecessor—and pledges to remain in sync with her district. She is setting up an 800 number for constituents and will work to increase the standard of living for the state's poorest citizens. "Folks aren't expecting miracles, but they do want the new members to recognize the sense of urgency that they feel in their own lives," she says.

Before she changes Capitol Hill, there's the matter-of those unpacked boxes at home. Lambert promises to follow Mark Twain's advice to young people starting a new career. "Always do right," he said. "This will gratify some people and astonish the rest."

DAVID ELLIS in Washington

From Our Partners