Guardian of the Chamber

House Doorman Provides Security and a Smile

Posted March 9, 2004 at 1:48pm

It’s been more than two decades since Lou Costantino first arrived in Congress as a House chamber Doorkeeper, but when Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) strolls by on a recent Tuesday afternoon, he still jumps to his feet with all the swiftness of an Army private.[IMGCAP(1)]

“How ya’ doin’?” Hastert offers in passing.

As the Illinois Republican shuffles down the second-floor Capitol corridor, the 67-year-old Costantino settles back into the window seat.

“Respect,” Costantino says in explanation for his gesture. “All leadership we stand up for.” [IMGCAP(2)]

Today, Costantino serves under House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood as part of the 17-member chamber security team. Forty-five minutes before the House is called to session, Costantino takes up his post outside the main entrance to the chamber — “The same door the president comes in during the State of the Union,” he says proudly — helping to ensure that only those with proper identification gain access. He also delivers bills, speeches and other documents to Members on the floor, and has annually escorted every first lady since Nancy Reagan to her State of the Union gallery perch.

No unauthorized person, no matter how important, gets by Costantino.

“I had a general come up to me who wanted to go on the floor,” says Costantino. “He said, ‘I’m a two-star general.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I don’t care if you are a four-star general.’”

That Costantino should choose to work past the age of retirement serving as a Congressional gatekeeper of sorts is hardly surprising for a man who grew up in a house at 451 New Jersey Ave. SE, and still remembers afternoons spent running up and down the main hallway outside the House floor that today is restricted to all but Members and staff.

Looking out the window, he points to the Capitol Dome’s cupola. “If you wanted to walk it, you could go up there,” he says, referring to the open Capitol access of his childhood. “You could come and go as you wanted, no questions asked.”

For years his father, Joseph Paul Costantino, ran the Capitol Barber Shop and Beauty Salon at 110 North Carolina Ave. SE, before turning it into a frozen custard shop. When Costantino took over his father’s shop, it became Capitol Hill Carry Out, a popular take-out store frequently patronized by the likes of then-Sens. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Kennedy (D-N.Y.), as well as Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.). He also owned a local liquor store.

“When you were born in a neighborhood, played in a neighborhood, had good friends die in a neighborhood, it just sticks with you,” he says.

Though Costantino and his wife, Doris, moved to a house just off Branch Avenue in Southeast after their marriage in 1965, the couple still attends St. Peter’s on Second Street Southeast. “There’s been a Costantino at St. Peter’s for 100 years,” he says.

Through his carry-out business, Costantino struck up friendships with various Members, including then-Rep. Gus Hawkins (D-Calif.), who first recommended him for the Doorkeeper position in 1980, shortly after Costantino closed his shop.

During Costantino’s tenure on the Hill, he’s experienced his share of unnerving Capitol moments. He was stationed just outside the House gallery the day in October 1983 when a man was arrested for threatening to blow up the building, and he worked closely with both Capitol Police officers killed in the 1998 shooting as well. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “we’re more alert than anything,” Costantino observes. “You don’t like it but if it upset you, you’d stay home,” he adds, in reference to the anthrax and ricin incidences.

Each Christmas, the culinarily inclined Costantino whips up 100 pounds — “sometimes more” — of Italian sausages to be distributed to his wide circle of friends, which includes several Members. He also dons a red Santa suit for the Sergeant-at-Arms’ and Clerk’s office holiday parties.

But on this afternoon, the wispy-haired, bespectacled Costantino sports a dark brown, pin-striped suit with an Italy-United States friendship pin on his left lapel. “It’s on this suit,” the grandson of Sicilian immigrants explains matter of factly, noting that the tiny flag pin stays on this particular suit.

Although Costantino claims to know most Members by sight, ever since undergoing open-heart surgery 20 years ago his memory sometimes lapses, so he quietly excuses himself and scurries down the hall in search of a C-SPAN facebook.

When he returns, Costantino begins flipping through the pages, stopping every few Members when he recognizes someone whom he considers “a good friend.” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) shares this distinction, as do Reps. Jennifer Dunn (R-Wash.), Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), among several others. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) “has no bad bones in his body,” while Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.) has not only “had my sausages” but also boasts a husband who makes pretty good garlic spread, too. “Oh God, it’s great,” he says wistfully.

Costantino is fiercely protective of those you can sense are very much his Members. He’s learned to read their moods — “You can tell when there’s something wrong with them and you don’t disrupt them” — insists on Mr. for the men and Mrs. (where appropriate) for the women, and refuses to permit any trace of partisanship to color his relationships with them.

“I work for both parties,” he emphasizes, declining to divulge his personal preference. “I don’t talk politics with nobody.”

“It’s the Lous of the world that are out there that I miss. They are the folks that really make the place work and run,” says former House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.), who still makes a point of visiting Costantino whenever he’s in Washington. “There’s something very special about his appreciation about what goes on on Capitol Hill.”

“He is of the old school,” adds Napolitano. “He treats people the way you want to be treated with the respect due you.”

That respect, however, also underlies a rock-ribbed belief that others should observe certain protocols when encountering his beloved institution.

“I hate to see people come in the Capitol in shorts,” he says. “This is the U.S. Capitol — as far as I’m concerned, you don’t come here in shorts.”

Still, there are a few areas where Costantino is willing to cut visitors some slack.

“Sometimes people come here with their clothes too tight,” he notes, before acknowledging with a chuckle: “They can’t help that, in fact, I’ve had my clothes too tight too sometimes.”