COURIER is sitting down with freshman members of Congress to get their take on what their first year was like, what they wish they knew when they started, and what surprised them most.
Rep. Xochitl Torres Small represents New Mexico’s second district, which covers the southern half of the state and is the fifth largest district in the country by geography. Voters in the district overwhelmingly cast ballots for President Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, 50% to 40%, before Torres Small, a freshman Democrat, flipped the district blue in the 2018 election.
In her first year, Torres Small has sponsored 14 pieces of legislation and cosponsored nearly 200. Her legislative work has spanned the gamut from border security and immigration to keeping drugs off the street, to improving healthcare in rural America, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, and protecting western water supplies.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Sentences in italics provide additional context.
COURIER: To begin, I’d like to ask about your process for materializing legislation and advancing it through the process, once an idea or policy agenda comes to mind. Where do you start and where do you go from there?
Xochitl Torres Small: I think there’s three facets to that.
The first is having clear priorities that are rooted in the district. The second is having a strong team and building expertise within the team. And then [the third is] building relationships with allies and other people who can help bring those initiatives to the forefront.
… My long term vision in serving the district is making sure that people who grow up there and want to be able to stay there and pursue their best opportunities can do so; and, making sure that people who are coming there are able to achieve their best opportunities [too] …
So any of the priorities that I have — whether it’s common sense solutions to border policy, or rural opportunity and broadband, or access to healthcare in rural communities or access to specialists in midsize cities — are all grounded in that real need within the district.
And then on creating the teams — making sure that strategy is really clear within my office and that the people I get to work with know the things we’re focused on. So whenever any of us have interactions with people, if something comes up that really fits into that strategy, we can move on it quickly and prioritize.
And lastly, finding allies and moving forward with it. I spend a lot of time creating relationships and getting to know people and what really matters to them. On the floor when we’re voting, for example, I’m the one who’s running around, person-to-person, trying to check in with people about what they’re doing and how things are going. And not with, like, a specific agenda. But instead, just so I know what’s important to everyone.
That’s the beautiful thing about the people’s House. There’s this opportunity to get to know the country through the people that are serving different parts of the country. And by creating that understanding, we can find ways to support each other.
That can be surprising. That’s why and how I’ve been able to, for example, work with Rep. Crenshaw on border issues. Because we were able to connect on that level, I think we were able to avoid some of the partisan fray and just try to solve the problem.
Torres Small and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) introduced legislation in December that would leverage technology to allow CBP officers to scan vehicles crossing the border for contraband more quickly and effectively, with the goal of curbing the illicit drug trade and improving the flow of legitimate trade.
When you’re looking to build a coalition or partnerships around a policy agenda, what qualities do you look for in allies?
The biggest thing is goodwill. Someone who is in it for the right reasons. Someone who is going to work on the issue for the sake of the issue, and there’s no hidden strategy behind it.
The second thing, I think, is that surprising coalitions really help. Whether it’s a Republican or somebody from a different perspective within the Democratic caucus. But that’s not just to help build momentum for the bill. It’s also to help best solve the problem. I find that differences in opinion can make for more thought-through legislation.
Would you say Congress is as polarized as it’s described in the media?
Yes and no … it’s not that simple. There are moments of real polarization that are deeply disheartening. But when you look at the entire situation, there are incredible opportunities and examples of successes where there’s been real collaboration.
For example, the same week that the president was impeached, the House passed H2A work visa reform, which dairy industries and farm workers had been working on for over 30 years. The unfortunate piece is that that was not something that was really discussed in the news.
But I think that the real answer is there are so many people, especially back home in New Mexico and, I’m finding, more and more across the country, who are ready to start investing in solutions. And we have to continue to focus on that. But a lot of the systems that are in place right now do seem to reinforce division.
… One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that you can’t do anything bipartisan by accident. It takes intentional prioritization …
Could you walk me through a normal day on the Hill?
Sure. I think the first big picture thing to say is that there is no coordination of schedules.
We get that a lot.
[Laughter] So there’s 435 members of Congress and everyone has different priorities and needs.
That’s one of the great things, the diversity of it, but also one of the challenges. So the solution that we’ve come up with for that, is that the only coordinated thing that happens are votes. And that’s why I talk about the floor as a key place where you can connect with people, ’cause it’s the only time where you can reliably find someone that you need to speak with.
… Each day is structured somewhat differently, but generally my day starts around 7 a.m. when I’m going through the binder that I have for that day. My binder is full of memos for all of my meetings and then in the back, flagged items of decisions that I need to make that day.
… meetings usually start at 8. Whether it’s a coalition group — I’m part of the weekly prayer breakfast — or the bipartisan working group. Or sometimes it’s the national Hispanic caucus.
Throughout the day, from 9 to 6, there are votes. There are constituent meetings — I really try to prioritize them if I have folks who have flown into D.C. from the district to make sure that I am meeting with them. And then there are committee hearings and subcommittee hearings. And then from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m, I’m making another round of calls and participating in evening engagements and meetings.
Torres Small is chairwoman of the Oversight, Management and Accountability Subcommittee.
How many steps do you think you get in per day?
So I used to wear heels whenever I dressed up. I wear flats now. I’ve gone through at least two shoes — I was walking the other day and it was raining and my foot was wet, and I realized I actually had a hole in the sole of my shoe. So there’s a lot of steps. Let me check my — I have a watch now — where is my phone here … I maybe lost it [background noise] oh I know where it is, here it is! Ok, let’s check. Well activity yesterday was 14,842 steps.
The average American takes an average of 4,774 steps daily, according to a 2017 study by researchers at Stanford University.
And then, oh, and then Tuesday was 17,277 steps.
Yeah, it’s a lot of walking. My team knows, often, a lot of our [team] meetings are just while I’m walking from one thing to the next. Especially when I’m going in and out of [other] meetings. For example, yesterday I had a rural broadband task force meeting and they were going through potential legislation and my team member who was there with me as we were leaving, I’m asking her, ‘what do you think the followups are for this meeting?’ And we talked through what that looks like. As a member, it’s my job to set the vision, to set the next steps and to make sure that they happen, but it’s my team’s job to help with a lot of that follow up.
We’ve got time for just one more question. If you could go back in time to just before you sworn into Congress and give yourself one piece of advice headed into your new job, what would you say?
So I actually got that piece of advice when we were getting trained. It was the pre-orientation program. And there were a lot of current numbers who were already on [the Hill]. And we were walking through the tunnels and I was a little lost. And I asked someone — an older, more experienced member — ‘what’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned being in Congress?’
And this member turned to me and said, ‘ruthless prioritization.’
And that really stung me because I really don’t think I’m a ruthless person. And it’s easy for me to get inspired by a lot of things.
But the truth in that comment was, when you learn your district, when you know your district and its needs, you have to stay focused on achieving those things. It allows you to dig in and to build a sense within your team of the importance of that specific work … so that when people see me, they know that I represent the most rural district served by a Democrat, and I’m looking for any kind of ally to help address those challenges.
They know that I represent 179 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, and I’m looking for common sense solutions that are sustainable in the long run.
When you build that faithfulness to your district’s needs and you prioritize them through action, I think you can achieve the most possible.
Thank you for your time, Congresswoman — appreciate it.
It’s great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.