Costa 'I was a lucky puppy'

Upon first meeting, Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) seems very serious.

The unsmiling 52-year-old lawmaker with white hair, long face and dark eyes that slant downward stands in the foyer of his second-floor walkup on Capitol Hill. He fiddles with the lock to the front door. This is not a fancy place — signs on the walls warn of an infestation of ants, roaches, fleas, mice and other vermin if inhabitants don’t keep their places “extremely clean.”
Pedro sa da Bandeira
Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.): Preparing salad in an orderly kitchen.

Costa leads the way up the stairs, which are carpeted in drab brown, to his one-bedroom apartment, unlocks the door and welcomes his guests — a Portuguese photographer, myself and two aides.

It’s actually rather nice, particularly in comparison to the forbidding foyer. It’s not even slightly hip — the tone is old-ladyish and the khaki-colored walls are a grim blend with the oatmeal carpeting — but the apartment is spotless, minimalist to an extent and adequate for a three-night-per-week stay.

The apartment tries to be masculine — a long, black leather couch is pushed up against a long wall of the living room. There are two brown leather chairs. On the wall is a large, rectangular mirror in a black frame.

Incongruously, though, there’s a painting on the wall called “A Fairy World,” with little fairies frolicking about in cheerful poses. The place came furnished, so Costa can’t be blamed for the d飯r. The only things he brought were the sleek white Bose clock radio and the magazines.

A glance into his bedroom reveals a full-size mattress with a blue patterned bedspread. Like the rest of the apartment, the room is spotless, with no clothing strewn about.

Once he is in his space — at home — Costa perks up. “Why don’t you ladies sit down?” he says to his press aides. “Jesus, you’re being so formal.”

He goes to the kitchen and begins taking items from the refrigerator and cupboards: salad from a bag, spices, extra-virgin olive oil, vinegar and chickpeas. Swiftly, the lawmaker brings the ingredients together, sprinkling seasoned salt, fine herbs, pepper and finally tuna into the salad. Cooking is among his hobbies, so he knows his way around the orderly kitchen, which has five rolls of paper towel lined up on top of the cupboard.

“You like cucumbers?” he asks, offering a slice of the vegetable on the blade of a knife. He wants to know whether we prefer Greek feta or crumbled bleu cheese on the salad. The aides seem to be in a catatonic state of humility and won’t venture an opinion, I pick bleu cheese.

The official meal is takeout pizza — mushroom and pepperoni, Costa’s fave. But the mixed salad he is preparing will wind up being the meal; he takes the pizza back to his office for staffers who missed lunch.

The lawmaker has an organized demeanor — he cleans up and rinses off plates as he goes. “I always like to clean as I cook,” he says. “That way you don’t have a mess.”

The reason Costa is so comfortable in the kitchen is that he had to fend for himself as a boy when his mother had cancer. Back then, his eating habits were what you’d expect — fried bacon on bread, that sort of thing. Later, when he was a teenager, Costa’s sister became a cook. The two now exchange recipes.

Costa considers himself lucky. He says he is lucky to have been born at all; his mother had two miscarriages after his elder sister, who is 14 years his senior, was born. Now, he feels lucky to have the job he dreamed of as a Capitol Hill intern in the summer of 1973 during the Watergate hearings.
And he believes he lucked out with his Capitol Hill home, just a block away from his office in the Longworth Building. “I’ve always thought I was a lucky puppy,” he sums up, smiling.

What does this lucky fellow have inside his fridge? A package of Pepperidge Farm chocolate-chunk cookies, a box of Heineken beer, orange juice, bottled water and asparagus.

Costa is now chopping scallions. His cupboards hold all kinds of spices and seasonings. “I don’t spend a lot of time here,” the lawmaker says. “I basically come here at the end of a long day. After attending some receptions or dinner, if I have any energy, I do some work.”

Each morning he wakes up at about 6:30 a.m. and makes coffee. On most days, he says, he pulls on sweats and goes to the House gym where he works out for 30-45 minutes.

Like a nervous host, Costa gets up a lot during the meal and wanders into the kitchen for various items such as soup, peppers and orange juice. Though he’s feeling a touch under the weather today, he looks content in his bachelor pad. The lawmaker has never been married.

Costa doesn’t act like a typical freshman; he is comfortable getting around the Capitol and the rules of the House floor. After serving in the California Legislature for 24 years, as well as being the president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, which brought him to Washington on several occasions, Costa looks and acts like a member who has been here for years.

“I don’t come without some expectation of the process,” he said, brushing off the idea that all of this is old hat to him and adding that he got on all the committees that he wanted: Agriculture, Resources and Science.

“Washington is someplace I’d spent some time over the years,” he said. “I certainly didn’t come here in some Pollyanna mode.

“It’s more or less what I expected it was going to be, which is a lot of hard work and developing relationships with your colleagues.”

Costa knows how to treat his guests well. He pulls out several boxes of crackers and sets the table with fancy white napkins. He takes the tiny remote control for his Bose radio and flips it on. Van Morrison’s “Moondance” comes blaring into the room.

The lawmaker begins his meal with a cup of chicken-noodle soup while we begin with the salad — which is excellent. At one point he goes to battle with the lid on a jar of peppers. Eventually, after another trip to the kitchen, he wins.

Costa first entered politics in the summer of 1973, when he came to intern for former Rep. B.F. Sisk (D-Calif.). He was 21 and enthralled by witnessing the Watergate hearings. Later, he went to work as a staffer for former Rep. John Krebs (D-Calif.).

Other than that internship, Costa worked until he was 22 on his family’s dairy farm in Fresno, the city where he was he was born.

He likes to mention his Portuguese roots and says that, with him now in Congress, the House has a Portuguese law firm with Reps. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.).

In 2002, Costa retired from the Legislature. He worked as a consultant for three years to groups that were developing legislative strategies. He was and still is an almond farmer. In 2004, former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) stepped down from his seat and, Costa says, 20-30 friends encouraged him to run.

As he finishes lunch and loads the dishwasher, the lawmaker becomes philosophical about politics, life, romance and (who knows?) the universe.

“Politics is like life; it’s about timing,” quoth he. “I’ve had relationships with women, and they said it was timing. I didn’t believe it. Now I believe it.”

It’s not clear whether he’s referring to the long-departed women or to his career and the time he first daydreamed of representing the Central Valley in Congress.