WASHINGTON — Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District finally has a new representative in Congress five months after ex-Rep.Trent Franks vacated the seat amid sexual harassment allegations.
Republican Rep. Debbie Lesko took the oath of office Monday after winning last month's special election to replace Franks, who is also a Republican.
“Thank you so much, I’ve lost my voice from the allergies here in Washington, D.C. But I’m truly honored to be here," Lesko, with a raspy voice, said to her new House colleagues in her first time speaking to Congress. "I look forward to working with you, and I want to say to my constituents at home, thank you so much for the privilege of your vote and for sending me here to Congress."
"I look forward to working together with our newest colleague to find common-sense solutions to the problems our nation faces," Rep. Paul Gosar, Lesko's GOP colleague from the Arizona delegation, said in his introduction of the new congresswoman.
"Very cool, this is exciting," House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said earlier in the evening during the ceremonial swearing in with Lesko's family. The real ceremony followed shortly after on the House floor where other lawmakers were present.
Lesko intends to join the hard-line conservative Freedom Caucus, according to spokesman Barrett Marson. She will be the only current female member of the group of three dozen or so members of Congress that Franks also participated in.
Franks stepped down in December after the House Ethics Committee revealed it was investigating allegations of sexual harassment. The Associated Press reported that a former Franks aide accused the eight-term congressman of repeatedly asking her to be a surrogate for his child, at one point offering her $5 million.
Lesko, a former Arizona state senator, defeated Democrat Hiral Tipirneni, a physician, by single digits in the closely watched contest. The 5 percentage-point margin was a modest showing for Lesko in a district that leans heavily Republican.
Franks had held the seat for 15 years, winning by such significant margins that Democrats didn't even field a candidate the last two election cycles.
“I think Debbie will make a wonderful member of Congress,” Franks said Monday. “I’ve supported her over the years and, while I supported an alternative in the primary, I certainly have endorsed and contributed to her efforts in the general. She has nothing but the warmest and best wishes from me.”
Democrats said they were “thrilled” by Tipirneni’s showing in the race — even if Lesko ultimately won the seat. Their reasoning: Tipirneni forced Republicans to spend money — more than $1 million — in a district that should have been an easy win for the GOP.
To take back the House, Democrats must gain at least 23 seats. There are 147 Republican-held congressional districts that are considered friendlier to Democrats than Lesko's district, according to the Cook Political Report, which conducts nonpartisan election analysis. The latest index measures how each district performed at the presidential level in 2016 and 2012 compared to the nation as a whole.
Contributing: Nicole Gaudiano, USA TODAY, and Ronald J. Hansen, The Arizona Republic