Harry Mitchell, the former Tempe mayor and high school civics teacher, said he really began to understand how the U.S. government really works only during the past two years, when the doors closed for caucus meetings.
During those times, Mitchell, a Democrat who was elected to the U.S. House in 2006, has gotten an insider's view in lawmakers' private off-the-record policy sessions.
It's a view that few people ever see. And Mitchell learned that geography trumps ideology far more than he ever expected.
Federal lawmakers caucus in four groups - Senate Democrats and Republicans, and House Democrats and Republicans. Outsiders are rarely permitted in the closed-door sessions.
It's in those relatively private meetings where the real business of Congress takes place, Mitchell said.
"To hear the arguments on issues, when people are talking from the heart, with no notes - you know, it's too bad these things can't be filmed. Put an embargo on them, and 25 years from now, release them to a university or something so people can see how legislation was shaped," he said.
Future scholars would be surprised by how legislation is crafted, Mitchell said. Debates on topics ranging from the economy to immigration to energy are often adversarial and always territorial.
"Everybody has their parochial interests, which is the way I think Congress was set up. Everybody's looking out for their own districts," Mitchell said during a break from his first congressional re-election campaign.
He recalled the caucus for the energy bill, a measure that pitted member against member.
"You have some people say, 'If the word nuclear is involved, I'm voting against it, even if the word's just in there.' Other people say, 'We don't like these requirements that the state has to get a certain amount of its energy by 2015 from alternate sources. We don't have any wind or sun in the South, so we're opposed to that,' " Mitchell said.
With his new non-textbook appreciation for the inner workings of Congress, Mitchell, 68, is running to keep the seat he won somewhat unexpectedly in 2006 when he ousted six-term Republican incumbent J.D. Hayworth in Arizona's 5th Congressional District. The district takes in Scottsdale, Tempe, Fountain Hills, Ahwatukee Foothills and west Mesa, an urban region that leans Republican in terms of voter registration.
Mitchell is campaigning largely on his record during his first term.
He notes that he met most of his 2006 campaign promises when he joined House Democrats in passing a package of six major bills during a 100-hour legislative drive two years ago.
The proposals: Enact several security recommendations issued by the 9/11 Commission, increase minimum wage during a three-year period, allow increased stem cell research, permit negotiations for prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries, cut interest rates on student loans and roll back tax breaks for oil companies.
Mitchell's biggest disappointment, he said, was inaction on immigration reform. Congress passed measures to put 3,000 new U.S. Border Patrol agents along the border, increase funding for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and for construction of a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
However, efforts guided largely by Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans from Arizona, to rewrite immigration policy on a broad scale fell apart after attacks from both parties.
The House never had an opportunity to vote on it.
"I would hope that immigration is one of the first things we deal with when we go back in January. I would hope so," Mitchell said. "It's an issue that we just keep putting our heads in the sand, and it's creating more and more problems."
Mitchell voted in support of a number of border security measures, such as expanding the Border Patrol by 3,000 agents and increasing funding for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. He also led efforts in the House to keep National Guard troops on the border.
In regard to immigration policy, he favors a flexible guest worker program that would allow highly skilled workers as well as low-skilled laborers to legally enter the United States to meet the country's changing labor needs.
Mitchell also supports a concept offering legal status to millions of illegal immigrants already living in the United States, though not necessarily by offering citizenship to all of them.
Mitchell said the new president and Congress must approach the issue anew to ease the strain illegal immigration causes on law enforcement, health care, school systems and the economy.
After the first 100-hour agenda, Mitchell focused much of his attention on veterans issues, which he said was a natural fit because his district has 65,000 veterans and the state has nearly 600,000.
Mitchell was named chairman of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, one of only two freshmen named to head a subcommittee. The committee focused on improving patient care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and improving the transition as service members' medical care shifted from military care to civilian care.
He pushed the VA to create a television outreach program to reach vets at risk for suicide.
Mitchell also introduced the House version of the new GI Bill, which was initially introduced by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., in the Senate. The measure provides military personnel returning from Iraq or Afghanistan four years of educational benefits, including stipends for housing and books.
Mitchell also sees the measure as an economic stimulus package because the funds will be spent at U.S. schools, plus it will help produce thousands of mature, educated men and women poised to enter the civilian work force. He said Iraq and Afghanistan vets could become the next "Greatest Generation."
On economic issues, Mitchell co-sponsored bills with Republicans to extend President Bush's 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, and to prevent every member of Congress from receiving automatic pay increases. Neither proposal gained much momentum, though Mitchell said he is hopeful the House will give the tax measure a serious look during the next session.
While much of the House's work is based on geographic considerations, he said a fair amount is still based on ideological considerations.
He said he enjoys talking to a variety of members from around the county to discuss their views, but one of his favorites is Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Arizona's 6th District, just south and east of Mitchell's district.
The political odd couple often talk on the House floor and while flying between Arizona and Washington.
Flake said he, too, enjoys their discussions.
"He's a good friend and he's a good man, and I like him," Flake said. "If I've made Harry think, I haven't made him act, because he hasn't voted for many of my bills or amendments yet."