I did not know Chip Kennett, but I knew him. Chip’s story was beautifully told in a Roll Call article last week (“Capitol Hill Helps One of It’s Own: Chip Kennett Finds Help in Unexpected Places;” Roll Call, Jan. 14). It was the story of a dedicated staffer who found love in the halls of Congress and married his wife, Sheila. To staffers, it was a perfectly normal story — many have found their life-mates down the hall in a Senate or House office building. It was normal, until three years ago, when Chip was diagnosed with lung cancer. His battle ended on Jan. 17, when his wife posted on Facebook, “Chip received a brand new body up in heaven that is free of cancer and simply full of everlasting life.”
Many media outlets are more content depicting the caricature of democracy — the craven, driven, ambitious, greedy corner of Congress. The “human” side is rarely shown. Little thought is given to the staffers who answer the phones, draft the letters and forge the deals which result in the laws of our land. And then, something happens to wake us up and remind us that Capitol Hill is a community, and there are real lives making up the broader congressional family.
During the past few years, as Chip went through experimental treatments, the outpouring of support overwhelmed the Kennett family. Fundraisers occurred and casseroles magically appeared as colleagues rallied to help a friend in need. The congressional naysayers might find this portrait strains credibility. When you start with an absolute, viewing Congress as totally corrupt, it applies even to the minions who support their masters’ pernicious ends. Yet, we know better.
Congress is made up of dedicated people who not only care for each other, but for their constituents. A Congressional Management Foundation-Society for Human Resource Management survey of congressional staff compared their attitudes about their jobs to U.S. employees. Whereas 35 percent of average American employees said “meaningfulness of job” was very important to them, 75 percent of congressional staff said it was very important. Asked about the “contribution your work has on the overall goals of the office,” 33 percent of U.S. employees said it was very important, compared to 70 percent of congressional staffers. One staffer said, “Despite the long hours and demands it imposes on both me and my family, I consider this opportunity to serve as a rare and special privilege.”
Congressional staffers are not alone in their passion to help. We could be talking about first responders, nurses or Navy Seals. The difference between them and us is this: Most Americans who make sacrifices for other citizens are lauded for those sacrifices, whereas congressional staff are ridiculed and belittled in the public square. There comes a point where the abuse overwhelms the passion, the negativity erases all meaning of why we jumped on this crazy roller coaster called Congress to begin with. On some level we sought this life. But nothing quite prepares us for the invectives screamed over the phone line by constituents, the skewed portrayal churned by the Internet of what motivates members, or the haranguing at the Thanksgiving Day dinner table by a distant cousin whose sole knowledge of Congress is based on three episodes of “House of Cards.”
After he was diagnosed with cancer, Chip did not turn inward, but became a vocal advocate for increased research funding for lung cancer. As I think of the sacrifice Chip and his family made in the spirit of public service, and the expression of love and support their Capitol Hill family showered on them when they were in need, I’m reminded that this place isn’t run by robots.
Tragically, Chip’s children (ages 5 and 2) will not fully know their father. But their mother will be able to communicate much about his life by saying, “Your dad was a staffer in Congress, trying to help other people.” Perhaps if Americans knew the Chips of our world, for a brief moment these silent patriots who toil under the Dome would be seen for what they are, passionate and frail public servants hoping their contributions can make the world a better place.
Bradford Fitch is president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation and a former staffer.