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.
Jason Fabick had graduated from barber college and was looking for a place to open a shop in Kent, Ohio. He and his business partner, Jason Manion, wanted to wear sports jerseys, talk about football and cut hair at the same time.
“We moved into Acorn Alley,” Fabick said, referring to the development project in downtown Kent made possible with a Transportation Department grant. “This is an idea that Kent has had for a long time but didn’t have the funds to get these things going.”
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s district office worked with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, the city, Kent State University and the Portage Area Regional Transit Authority to secure $20 million for Kent.
The role of the district office was to help organize a group of stakeholders to appeal to the Department of Transportation for funding. It worked.
Acorn Alley came to fruition and has brought in businesses such as Jasons’ Barbershop, which has since expanded from two barbers to five, with room to grow. “We have a sixth chair,” Fabick said. “We will probably hire a sixth [barber] eventually.”
Not everyone sees this kind of federal spending as a good thing. Critics consider such grants to be one of the worst aspects of the legislative process. The House-passed fiscal 2013 Transportation-HUD bill would have eliminated the TIGER Grants program, which funded the Kent project.
But Fabick sees it as local politics at its best. And he has a lot of company among other Americans, whose views of their congressman — if not of Congress as a whole — are greatly shaped by their interactions with district and state offices.
Ask the workforce in West Virginia, where Sen. Jay Rockefeller traveled dozens of times to Japan to persuade Toyota to open a $400 million plant in the town of Buffalo. The Democrat’s state staff organized the meetings in West Virginia and accompanied him on some overseas trips.
Or ask the residents of Joplin, Mo., who were struck by an F5 tornado May 22, 2011. Republican Rep. Billy Long was on the ground the next day, pitching a tent next to the Red Cross and helping facilitate communication among the local, state and federal agencies involved.
The district staffers have long been the unsung heroes of congressional work. District work does not get nearly the same coverage as Hill activity, but its role is just as vital to the function of Congress.
District offices and D.C. offices have their own staffs — though occasionally traveling staffers go back and forth.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.