Rep. William Lacy Clay spent 17 years in the Missouri state Legislature. In 2000, he was elected to the U.S. House, following in the footsteps of his father, Bill Clay, a fellow Democrat who had represented the same district for more than three decades.
But the roots of Clay’s political experiences do not rest simply in bearing witness to his father’s career. He gained an invaluable political education as an assistant doorman in the Office of the Doorkeeper from 1978 to 1983.
As a student at the University of Maryland, Clay squandered the “dad scholarship” that he received by getting placed on academic probation after his freshman year.
Short on cash and eager to turn himself around academically, he followed his father’s instruction by picking up a full-time job in order to continue his studies. He worked by day, studied by night.
Courtesy of an appointment from former Rep. James Symington (D-Mo.) — the son of a former Senator — Clay went to work in the House documents room, where he stayed for two years before joining a group of about 50 others as an assistant doorman.
The new role required learning the names, faces and home state of every Member of Congress, a task helped by a picture book. Other aspects of the position included delivering messages and security work. But the central task was opening doors for Members making their way to the floor of the House.
“Our main function was to open the doors when there was a vote, announce the vote and be sure that it was the Member that was going through the door,” Clay told Roll Call.
In his first year on the job, Clay worked the doors near the House Gallery. But after a security breach, he was placed at the floor level, where he spent his final four years on the job.
Being closer to the floor had considerable perks. Clay earned higher pay. He came to work decked out in a suit and tie. And he met luminaries of all social stripes.
“You have Senators, presidents. I met a pope, kings and queens. I even had the occasion to meet Brooke Shields when she was a teenage star,” he said.
The experience not only allowed Clay to interact with Members on a regular basis, but it also exposed him to the legislative process in a more intimate way, prompting him to think about his long-term career aspirations.
“After a year or two of being in one of those jobs, I realized that I did not want to do that for the rest of my life,” he said.
He ended his tenure as a doorman in 1983, at the midpoint of his father’s 16-term House career.
Clay had earned his degree in government and politics after seven years of study. Carrying the load of a full-time job while attending school gave Clay a greater appreciation for his academic accomplishment and served as a professional epiphany as he recognized he was capable of performing the duties associated with being a Member of Congress.
“I realized that working with the Members that they were human like me and that it was something I could do, too,” he said.
To establish his own political career, Clay ditched Washington, D.C., for Jefferson City.
He won his first race for the Missouri House in 1983. Though his experience as a legislator was nonexistent, Clay “hit the ground running” in his home state, buoyed by the fundamentals he had witnessed on the floor of the House and, naturally, abetted by his famous family name.
“[I] had never been in a legislative body, but it was being exposed to Congress in the way that I was that helped me understand coalitions, it helped me understand reaching across the political divide, reaching across the aisle and working with Members of the opposite party in order to pass meaningful legislation,” Clay said.
Elected to the House in 2000, Clay joined the political class that he had once opened doors for. He now serves alongside some of the familiar faces he had greeted as a young doorman, including Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who returned to the House in 2005.
Equally enjoyable was running into fellow doormen whom he had served with years earlier. Although the Office of the Doorkeeper was eliminated as a solo entity in 1995, there remained a cadre of colleagues from Clay’s time in the position. Seeing his fellow doormen brought back favorable memories of his more youthful days in the nation’s capital.
“After 17 years of me spending that time in Missouri, in the state Legislature, I was able to come back and reconnect with these people, so it was like a homecoming for me,” he said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.