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On the Ground: The Unsung Heroes of District Offices and How They Work

Courtesy Rep. Tim Ryan
From right: Kent State University President Dr. Lester Lefton, Development Finance Authority of Summit County President Chris Burnham and Ryan at a construction site in Kent, Ohio. Ryan’s district office organized stakeholders to appeal for the funding.

“In general, very different people are drawn to work in D.C. as compared to working in the district office,” said Susie Gorden, vice president of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation.

District staffers tend to have a longer tenure and more work experience, and are more likely to have children and close ties to the district, the CMF has found.

While D.C. staff feel the pressure of the grinding schedule and political tension, those in the state and district offices feel the real and immediate pressures of constituents in need. “There is a human component to the work they do. Instead of making a decision on a piece of legislation, they are looking a person directly in the eye,” Gorden said.

“District staff are connected to the district in a way that the D.C. staff isn’t,” she said. It is the district staff who find the “unforeseen consequences of legislation.” A prime example: “Any changes to veterans health coverage will be first reported to the district caseworker, not the military legislative assistant.”

Measuring Success

The CMF says successful district offices are clear in managing expectations and clear in procedures for casework.

“A good district office knows what they can and cannot do and communicates that effectively,” Gorden said. Another predictor of success is if the district director and the D.C. chief of staff have a good working relationship.

In addition to the day-to-day casework, district offices often play a strategic role in helping members secure “big wins” such as relocating a major business, saving an existing business or securing funds for economic development.

“Getting a major business to relocate is a multilevel team effort” that must be led by the member, Gorden said, but with staff playing crucial roles. “Extremely well-connected district staff will work with other state and local agencies to create business development opportunities,” she said.

Chris Cupples, Ryan’s economic development coordinator, grew up near the lawmaker’s northeast Ohio district and continues to be part of the effort to develop downtown Kent.

“It’s great to see these cities that have gone through hardships over the last several decades expand, diversify and come alive again,” Cupples said. “Working with our constituents on a daily basis gives a perspective on how significant economic development efforts and resources from the federal government help local communities.”

And sometimes it can be the dogged determination of a member to make something happen. After 10 years and dozens of meetings in both Japan and West Virginia, Rockefeller — who spent three years as a student in Japan in the 1950s — persuaded Toyota that Buffalo, W.Va., was the ideal home for the company’s $400 million plant to produce four-cylinder Corolla engines. The plant had a projected initial workforce of 350. Total employment now is around 1,200.

Emergency Responders

When an emergency hits home, it’s the district office that is first to respond.

After the Joplin tornado, Long’s district office was a communications hub, staying in contact with city officials and monitoring the rescue from the Emergency Operations Center. When the local fire department decided to barricade some streets, residents couldn’t get in. Long learned of the problem and went to talk to the fire chief; the ban was quickly lifted.

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