All’s Quiet on Capitol Hill

Posted July 27, 2004 at 2:57pm

WASHINGTON — On Monday and Tuesday, a dreary cloud of wet, overcast weather hung over the nation’s capital. But one lower-level Democratic staffer who is manning the front desk in his Senator’s Capitol Hill office this week said that if the weather changes he’s got big plans to fill his workdays.

“I’m going to go sun bathing on our office porch,” he said with a laugh.

Such seems to be the mood in a number of Democratic offices this convention week. With Members and many of the higher-level office staffers hobnobbing at the Democratic National Convention, many of those unfortunate staffers who didn’t find a way to get to the Boston confab have been left trying to fill their slower-than-slow workdays on Capitol Hill.

“It sucks,” said another Senate staffer as he hit the pause button on the DVD he was playing on his office computer. “I feel like we’re missing all the action.”

With the hyped-up Boston bar scene and all the high-end parties that some of his more fortunate co-workers will be attending this week, the staffer admitted he was less than pleased to have to stay in D.C. and answer phones. But, as if accepting his place on the Capitol Hill food chain, he shrugged and said, “I’ve got two movies and a book to get through this week.”

Between the Democratic convention activities and Hill Republicans already on their August recess break, the hussle and bustle has very much been taken out of Capitol Hill. Joggers occasionally emerge from offices for mid-day runs, staffers can be seen taking leisurely lunch breaks, and some offices even have trouble scrounging up someone who’s qualified enough to talk to the press.

“It’s gonna be a slow week,” confirmed Rita Warren, aka the “Jesus Lady,” who might be considered an authority on the work cycles of the Hill since she’s been coming to the steps of the Capitol each week for the past 25 years to proselytize with her life-size statue of Jesus of Nazareth. Warren, a one-time Boston resident who “wasn’t inspired” to go spread her gospel at the convention this year, said she doesn’t expect a whole lot of action this week from anyone other than Washington tourists.

“It’s been very quiet, it’s just routine business,” agreed Capitol Police spokeswoman Sgt. Contricia Sellers-Ford.

But according to those press secretaries who can still be found in town, it’s not all play and no work for those who were left behind.

On Monday, Ilene Zeldin, press secretary for Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), was quick to point out that her office did indeed have a busy week ahead. Interns were working around the office to pack up the retiring Senator’s papers to ship to the University of South Carolina for storage, and one Hollings aide who was working on immigration-related issues made it very clear that some things “don’t take a break just because Congress is on vacation or at a convention.”

“Besides the jeans and flip-flops, it is business as usual this week,” assured Erin Utzinger, press assistant for Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.).

Reached in Boston, Andy Davis, a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), said the Senator’s Capitol Hill office is working with a “skeleton crew” this week to handle constituent requests and help coordinate convention activities. While the soon-to-be-confirmed Democratic presidential nominee could take only a limited number of people from his personal office to the convention with him, many other staffers took personal time off and found alternate ways to go to Boston by volunteering with some of the many convention organizers, Davis said.

And the volunteering route has emptied out more than just Kerry’s office. Bay State Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Hill office is down to just eight people, and a spokesman for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said the Congresswoman’s office saw many of its staffers take time off to volunteer at the convention as well.

Matthew Dennis, a legislative assistant with Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), found his way to Boston by volunteering with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Although Dennis is heading back to Capitol Hill on Thursday, he said he just didn’t want to miss the action of the convention. In between checking in guests for various DCCC functions, Dennis said he has met both Andre 3000 of Outkast and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger while in Boston.

But while the party continues to rage in Beantown, workdays will continue to drag on for many of those left on the Hill.

“It’s pretty damn quiet around here,” said another Democratic front-desk receptionist. “At least we’ll keep the Library of Congress busy this week.”