WASHINGTON — The Charleston area's incoming congressman got little rest over the holidays.

Since pulling off his election upset win in November, U.S. Rep.-elect Joe Cunningham has spent his days hiring staff, setting up his new offices, removing himself from ongoing cases at his law firm, applying for committee assignments and studying up on congressional procedure.

Not to mention taking care of a 10-month-old infant son.

After months of preparation, the Charleston Democrat is set to be sworn in Thursday at the Capitol.

"There's been not a lot of down time," Cunningham said Wednesday. "Good problem to have, though. I'm not complaining at all."

With so much to prepare for, Cunningham hasn't had time to find somewhere to stay while in Washington. His wife, Amanda, and son, Boone, will continue to live in Charleston where Cunningham will return when Congress is not in session.

He's planning to stay in Airbnb short-term rentals until he finds a roommate, which he hopes to do this week. A mostly facetious request on Twitter to room with U.S. Sen.-elect Mitt Romney, R-Utah, has so far gone unreturned.

Facing Cunningham when he arrives is an unusual opening task: Trying to end a partial government shutdown.

Noting that President Donald Trump promised his Southern border wall would be paid for by Mexico, Cunningham said he'd be willing to have a debate whether American taxpayers should fund it instead — but only after the government has reopened.

The fight, he said, is a symptom of the broader tribalism in American politics.

"People in the 1st Congressional District have sent me up here to extinguish those flames of partisan hatred and political divide as opposed to pouring kerosene on it," Cunningham said.

"No side will get every single thing that they want from their wish list, but we've got to start putting people over politics and country before party."

Top priorities

The shutdown could lead to a delay in lawmakers finding out their committee assignments, though the announcements are still expected to come some time later this month.

Cunningham is eyeing several panels that could allow him to focus on issues he campaigned on — the transportation committee to improve infrastructure in the Lowcountry and the natural resources committee to oppose offshore drilling and boost environmental protections.

Cunningham's first day will also feature another high-profile vote as the House elects the next speaker.

No sooner had Cunningham won his race than some supporters started calling for him to break one of his earliest campaign promises, not to support Nancy Pelosi, D-California.

He has already endured attacks from both sides for his approach. From the left, critics complain he's attempting to block a successful Democratic legislator from retaking the gavel. From the right, they say his vote is merely symbolic and he's not doing enough to stop Pelosi from becoming speaker anyway.

His views have not changed.

"I ran a campaign on being an independent voice and speaking up against my party when I felt the need to," Cunningham said. "It's shocking that some people think I would just automatically go back on that ... but I think that just kind of shows you how low the bar has been set in politics."


The plaque outside the new office of U.S. Rep.-elect Joe Cunningham, D-Charleston. Cunningham will be sworn in Thursday. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Who he'll vote for instead of Pelosi remains a surprise for now. Cunningham declined to reveal his pick before he votes on the House floor Thursday. He said it will be someone he considers a "fresh face" who can work across party lines in the top leadership role.

Contrary to any notion that Pelosi would hold his vote against him and use her power to stop him from succeeding, Cunningham said she invited him to meet her one-on-one in her office during congressional orientation. 

"She's very pleasant and gracious," Cunningham said. "We're all adults here. ... I don't think the first vote is going to have any lasting harm. I'm just looking forward to getting to work and getting past this because I think there are a lot of other more important issues that people care about."

Cunningham has already won a position as a regional whip for Southeastern states, meaning he'll help South Carolina's other congressional Democrat — incoming House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of Columbia — keep the party unified on key votes.

How Cunningham performs could play a decisive role in whether he lasts longer than two years on the job.

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Within days of Cunningham's victory over Republican Katie Arrington — the first Democratic win in S.C.'s 1st Congressional District since 1980 — Republicans had gone into the field with polls to size up potential GOP challengers and began hiring staff in the district in attempt to win it back.

Cunningham, who has joked that the new Republican campaign staffers in his district show he's already fulfilling his promise to create jobs in the Lowcountry, said he's not worried about reelection yet, despite the district's historic GOP lean.

"I'm just going up there to do exactly what I said I was going to do," Cunningham said. "I think if you do that and you remain transparent and honest then people will send you back, hopefully."

Younger Congress

At 36, Cunningham represents a broader shift toward younger members in the incoming congressional class.

The average age of newly elected Democrats entering Congress this year is about 45, according to USA Today  — more than seven years younger than in the last Congress. South Carolina's other new congressman, Republican William Timmons of Greenville, is 34.

The youthful nature of the freshmen has been on display since Election Day through their proficient use of social media as they have turned to platforms like Instagram to offer a peek behind the scenes on Capitol Hill and show what their personal lives are like away from the political stage.

In preparation for his trip to Washington this week, Cunningham posted a "Swearing-in Playlist" on Spotify, featuring a mix of classics and newer hits, from John Denver's "Leaving on a Jet Plane" to Ariana Grande's "thank u, next."

"By social media and other channels, you're able to bring in more younger people to the polls and remind them that their voice matters and their vote matters and their opinion matters and they can be a part of this process," Cunningham said.

In an institution that continues to prize seniority, freshman lawmakers can often be surprised by how difficult it is to accomplish their individual priorities as the most junior of the House's 435 members.

Not only do longer-serving members control committees, which gives them more power over what legislation moves forward, they also have other advantages.

"At the end of the day, part of the legislative process is cultivating personal relationships with other members," said Jordan Ragusa, a congressional expert at the College of Charleston. "But that can take a long time to develop."

Cunningham said he is raring to get started.

"I'm pumped. I'm riding high on adrenaline right now," he said. "I'm excited to get up there and start the work, crank the engine up and get this government back on track. I'm honored to have this opportunity. The people here in the 1st District have trusted me with this responsibility and I'm not going to let anyone down."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina statehouse and congressional delegation. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.