The Boston Globe: D.C. rookie Seth Moulton takes a veteran’s approach

WASHINGTON — Seth Moulton wants to ensure that Congress has a vigorous debate over authorizing troops in Iraq and Syria. He is looking for a full team of staffers and vowing to help fix the bureaucratic morass at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But first, the Democrat has to find his office.

Moulton, sitting unnoticed in gym shorts and sneakers at a French cafe near the Capitol one recent day, reflected on the whirlwind of activity since he won election in November — from selecting office space to his efforts to land a spot on one of the House’s more coveted committees, on Armed Services.

One of the first things he hopes to do, Moulton said, is add pressure on the Republican-led Congress to vote before any combat troops are sent to Iraq.

“I saw some of the consequences of failed leadership in Washington,” said Moulton, a former Marine who served four tours in Iraq. “I think the politicians didn’t know what they were doing when they got us into Iraq, and then they didn’t have our backs when we were there.”

And even though he played down his own military service during the campaign — choosing not to publicly disclose that he was twice decorated for heroism — his background seems to be a driving theme of what he hopes to accomplish in Congress after he is sworn next month.

His voice is especially needed, he said, at a time when Congress is projected to have an all-time low number of veterans. Only about 20 percent of the lawmakers are veterans, compared with 70 percent in the 1970s. He is the first combat veteran to represent Massachusetts in Washington since John Kerry, who served in the Vietnam War.

Moulton joined the Marines after graduating from Harvard College in 2001 and was in the first Marine company to enter Baghdad two years later.

He emphasized that the threat of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State is real and needs to be defeated, but he said combat troops are not the solution. He believes that the United States has not done enough to support Iraq politically and that further military involvement will do little.

“Iraq must be able to secure its own borders and defend its own people,” he said. “We ought to actually fill the huge embassy we built in Baghdad for this purpose, not with troops but with people from the State Department.”

Moulton, 36, said he hopes to play a role in reforming VA health care, which came under fire earlier this year due to a backlog in disability claims.

He currently receives his medical care through the VA, and he said he plans to continue to do so even after he is sworn in to the 114th Congress. Even though he trusts his own primary care physician, he said the bureaucracy was flawed.

“I know what it’s like to wait in line two hours just to have your blood drawn,” he said. “People who should have been fired a long time ago are still on the job.”

Moulton’s arrival also reinforces a shift within the Massachusetts delegation, one that had long been characterized by stalwart lawmakers who served in Washington for decades.

In fact, as Moulton went through orientation, boxes and trash bins stood near the office door of 63-year-old John Tierney, who served in the House since 1997. Moulton decisively beat Tierney in a primary election for the North Shore district.

Moulton, who is still paying off his college loans, brings a youthful appearance that his aides sought to highlight by inviting the Globe to trail the athletic congressman-elect on a jog around Capitol Hill on a chilly fall morning.

He joins Joe Kennedy III, a 34-year-old set to start his second term, who said he was excited to have another young member in the delegation.

“This is a guy who is going to make a really valuable contribution to the delegation, the [Democratic] caucus, and the country,” Kennedy said.

Moulton spent recent days getting a tour of the Capitol, attending a reception at the Library of Congress, and engaging in one of the most competitive affairs of freshman orientation: a lottery for office space.

Drawing a numbered chip from a box, Moulton got the 34th pick, putting him a little below average in the list of 57 spots.

“It’s small but it’s quite nice,” he said of his new digs near Niki Tsongas’, Kennedy’s, and Michael Capuano’s current offices. “We have good neighbors and it’s in a good location that will make it easy for constituents to find it when they come visit.”

Moulton has yet to finalize his staff roster, adding he has a stack of resumes to sift through.

As Moulton learns to navigate the confusing tunnels connecting the Hill office buildings, Kennedy has been his “go-to-guy,” mentoring him about everything from leadership votes to which meetings he should skip.

“Trying to navigate through all of that can be really overwhelming,” Kennedy said. “The first couple months you’re figuring out where the bathrooms are or how to navigate the underground tunnels. I told him just to take it all day by day. No one really thinks about all those nuts and bolts.”

Representative Katherine Clark, a Melrose Democrat who joined the delegation in a special election a year ago, emphasized the importance of building relationships with Republicans as a freshman in the minority party.

Moulton said he was surprised by how few events were with Republican freshmen, but he made a point to meet some. During the housing lottery, he said, he sat with Lee Zeldin, an incoming congressman from New York and fellow veteran.

“Everyone recognizes that partisanship is a real problem today,” he said. “And that means we have to take the practical steps to bridge those relationships across the aisle.”