From ‘Jim Who?’ to New House Clerk

Posted February 5, 2007 at 6:56pm

First in a three-part series profiling the House officers.

Lorraine Miller’s first job on Capitol Hill was answering the phones for future Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas). And she almost blew it.

“He called the office one day asking for the chief of staff,” recalled Miller, who was named Clerk of the House last week. “He said, ‘This is Jim.’ I’d only been there for two weeks and I said, ‘Jim who? Oh!’ So I quickly learned his voice.”

That faux pas aside, Miller certainly has made a name for herself in Washington, D.C., serving as an aide to three Speakers — Wright, Tom Foley (D-Wash.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — as well as heading the D.C. branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“Somebody who started out here answering phones, and to become ultimately an officer of this institution, is a very big deal,” Miller said.

And her appointment has a historic element to it: Miller will be the first black Clerk when she officially takes office this month.

“Diversity has long been one of the greatest strengths of our nation,” Pelosi said in a statement. “And as the first African American official of the House, Lorraine will bring that strength to the office of the Clerk.”

Shortly before she boarded a bus to last week’s Democratic retreat, Miller sat down to talk about her life in public service and her ambitions for the future. Above all, Miller hopes she will be able to help Members do the best job possible, she said.

“My job is to make my principal look good,” Miller said. “It’s the old school, but it’s the way we did things. And I like that, and I still adhere to it.”

In a nutshell, the Clerk’s job is to make sure everything in the House runs smoothly. The Clerk is in charge of an array of activities, from helping to preserve order and decorum in the House to certifying the passage of bills to keeping a permanent set of books and documents to managing the House page program.

The latter will perhaps pose the biggest challenge to Miller, as the page program has been under scrutiny in the months following the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

But Miller — who was a teacher for 10 years in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas — said she will pay a lot of attention to the program, ensuring it will continue for years to come.

“You want to make sure that when they send their young person here to school, that parents feel comfortable,” said Miller, whose cousin was a page about 10 years ago and is now serving in Iraq. “One, that they’re getting a good education and two, that they’re safe. And we want to do everything humanly possible so that occurs.”

The Clerk’s office is in good shape, Miller said. She plans to spend her first few weeks on the job getting to know people and how things work, and for the time being she is working with outgoing Clerk Karen Haas to make the transition “as seamless as possible,” she said.

Haas said Miller’s experience on Capitol Hill will be a great asset to her, including her positive relations with Members of both parties.

“I think she’s going to be a terrific Clerk,” Haas said. “I really do.”

The Road to Washington

Miller’s first taste of politics came while growing up in Fort Worth. Her mother helped out on a campaign for Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas), and Miller and her sister wound up stuffing envelopes. As a teenager, Miller helped a high school counselor run for City Council.

Despite those early forays, she didn’t get too involved in the political scene right away, instead becoming a teacher in her hometown’s school system. Yet Miller longed to work for Wright, who at the time was a rising Congressional star.

“When I was working in the Fort Worth public schools, every year for 10 years I’d send him a little letter to ask him if there was an opening on his staff,” Miller recalled. “I always got a computer generated letter saying, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.’”

Miller didn’t give up. She moved to D.C. to attend graduate school and managed to land that entry-level position answering phones for Wright.

As Wright continued his political ascent to Speaker, Miller became a big part of the office, doing everything from answering constituent mail to managing the Congressman’s appointments to boards to working with the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.

When Wright retired, Miller stayed on to work for new Speaker Foley. And when Foley decided to expand the leadership, Miller was asked to work for Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

“Mr. Lewis is a very unique, very humble spirit,” Miller said. “Never heard him raise his voice, except in laughter. He’s not a man filled with anger, despite all the things he went through, all the beatings during the civil rights movement. This is a man who doesn’t have animosity.”

After her stint with Lewis, Miller moved to the White House to become deputy assistant to then-President Bill Clinton for legislative affairs. There, Miller truly began to appreciate the work it takes to become a responsible Member of Congress, she said.

“The Members here, they’ve got to maintain pretty much two homes. They’ve got half a million constituents they’ve got to pay attention to. They’ve got a staff here, a staff in the district. And then they’ve got a family, and trying to be like everybody else, living an ordinary lifestyle, is very difficult.”

Helping Others

Away from Capitol Hill, Miller maintains an important presence in the city itself as head of the D.C. branch of the NAACP.

“The NAACP is really a part of me,” she said. “I believe in it. I still think racism is prevalent, it’s just taken a different course. It’s about making sure there’s equal opportunity for everyone, not just for African-Americans, but for all people.”

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) called Miller’s appointment a “fitting start” for Black History Month and said District residents take particular satisfaction in the appointment.

Miller “has worked so long as a local leader of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization to help African-Americans advance, without any thought that she herself would be awarded a historic appointment,” Norton said.

Miller said she will get ethics briefings to decide if her position at the NAACP — which is preparing to move its headquarters from Baltimore to D.C. — will pose problems for her gig as Clerk. But in her private life, Miller plans to stay involved, partly because, in recent months, she has seen her efforts make a difference.

When the NAACP held its annual convention in D.C. last summer, thousands of members lobbied on Capitol Hill in favor of the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which sat in the Senate at the time, Miller recalled. That effort gave the bill a final push, Miller said.

“Having been here all these years, you don’t see a lot of African-Americans doing lobbying in big groups,” she said. “To see all these black folks walking the halls; I call them the blue-suiters, the lobbyists, because they all have the blue suits. So the blue-suiters were outnumbered that day.”

And even though Miller barely has begun her job as Clerk, already she is looking ahead for her next gig: real estate entrepreneur. The D.C. resident has spent the past few years working to get her real estate license, but not because she wants to become the next big mogul.

“There are so many distressed communities around the country that really need some attention,” she said. “You’d be amazed what a fresh coat of paint can bring to a blighted area.”

Plus, Miller maintains a home in Fort Worth and her family farm in East Texas. (She recalled that even though they are about to put their livestock to slaughter, she still names the animals.)

One day, Miller hopes to spend her days roaming the farm, she said. But until then, she’ll be on Capitol Hill, making sure Congress continues to get its work done.

“Once you’ve been around here, and you look at the Capitol Dome, and you don’t get a little twinge, a little twinkle in the eye,” she said. “It’s not the place to be.”