Trying Out a Life on the Hill

I did not know how their experiences would diverge in the months to come, but I suspected they might contrast in interesting ways. They also seemed to embody the tensions facing Democrats pondering the upcoming presidential election: Should the party embrace a new wave of progressive energy, or choose a more traditional candidate, one who had shown success winning over moderate Republicans?

Ms. Pressley was already, at the time, associated with the Squad, an informal crew that included fellow first-year Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar; but the phenomenon was still so new that when I started following Ms. Pressley it hardly registered on my radar. Ms. Spanberger had a day-to-day friendship with several other first-year congresswomen with military or service backgrounds, but they were only beginning to figure out how they might amplify each others’ voices.

By the time I finished reporting, the Squad was a well-known entity, having taken on meaning largely outside the control of the women in it. They became a symbol of minority power that President Trump attacked on Twitter to whip up his base, and such a locus of news media obsession that some Democrats worried they were skewing perception of the party’s positions.

Ms. Spanberger and her closest colleagues also played a fateful role in the year of the Democratic caucus; having been part of a bloc of moderates who resisted impeachment for most of the year, she, along with the group, finally reversed position following revelations about the president’s dealings with Ukraine, and published a Washington Post editorial calling for the start of the inquiry — a collective move that some analysts believe broke the dam leading to the inquiry’s official start.

I obviously did not know Ms. Pressley and Ms. Spanberger would come to have such high profiles when I chose to focus on them; then again, high profiles come from strong personalities, and that was part of what drew me to them in the first place.

As I reported the story over many months, I often felt like I was living in Rashomon Congress: I was witnessing, close up, historical events from two entirely different perspectives. Issues that were of burning importance to Ms. Pressley sometimes struck moderates as distractions that would get in the way of other important party messaging; decisions moderates made that progressives perceived as insufficiently humane were, to Ms. Spanberger, moves that fulfilled campaign promises of bipartisanship — and that would help her and her fellow Frontliners, as they are known, retain their seats and thus the Democratic majority.

The article was about two women, but it was not, in the end, about women in Congress — it was about elected officials trying to reconcile competing demands, the good of the party and their own personal experiences of all of it.

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