A Hands-On Manager

Posted May 20, 2009 at 2:32pm

Typically, a Member of Congress puts his staff to work, but once a year Chief of Staff Rochelle Dornatt gets the opportunity to put Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) to work. One day every summer, Farr travels to Dornatt’s three-acre farm in Luray, Va., to help her clean it up and keep it in order.

“The Congressman one year cleaned out my entire attic,— Dornatt says, adding that, much to her chagrin, he chopped her TV antenna down because it “wasn’t aesthetically pleasing.—

Farr, along with the nine office staffers, make the road trip from Washington, D.C., to the ranch where they take on household chores before feasting on a meal made from the farm’s garden and watching movies projected on a barn wall.

Dornatt, who has been running Farr’s D.C. office since 1993, says the office has a “feeling of family— because the staff is united in helping the people of California’s 17th district.

We “really have a strong, coherent office relationship,— Dornatt says.

Dornatt says she was drawn to the political sphere after John F. Kennedy was elected president when she was a kid.

“I remember my father’s reaction to Kennedy getting elected,— she says. “He said, This is a good man, and he’s going to help us.’—

Dornatt’s first political endeavor came when she was in high school in Michigan. There was a ballot initiative to end state aid to parochial schools that Dornatt opposed. Although Dornatt fought hard, in the end she lost.

“Losing was hard, but it was still a lesson,— she says. She took this lesson to college and decided to study political science. After graduating, she got a job in the Carter administration, followed by stints in the offices of then-Reps. Jim Santini (D-Nev.) and Kent Hance (D-Texas) before landing a job at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The DCCC “is where I earned my wings because I did everything,— she says.

Dornatt was responsible for the nitty-gritty of writing bill summaries and analyses, and she even got to count votes before legislation hit the floor.

“I got to know the parliamentary procedure from the ground up,— she says.

Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) chaired the DCCC at the time and was eventually elected to the post of Majority Whip. Dornatt moved to that office and had a hand in writing the Americans With Disabilities Act. She was rewarded for her hard work with a trip to the White House.

“I had my fingerprints on it,— she says proudly. “I got invited to the White House for the bill signing because I had a hand in it.—

In her current role as chief of staff, Dornatt still finds time to do legislative work while managing nine staffers and one fellow. The Congressman leaves the hiring and firing to her, though she tries to bring people in who jibe well with Farr’s style and attitude.

“I look for people who have the same kind of work style,— she says.

Dornatt says part of the reason the office has a family feel to it is because many of the employees have been with Farr since the beginning. However, this does present a problem for new staffers who want to move up.

“Staff that come in often hit this ceiling or roadblock, if you will,— she says. Dornatt puts a positive spin on this, saying that there is a strong network of former Farr staffers in other offices.

Unlike many chiefs, Dornatt still works on a full legislative portfolio. While she doesn’t have time to tackle some of the larger issues, she is still very active in writing bills and monitoring legislation. She covers some 30 issues, including military construction appropriations and health care reform. Dornatt says she also keeps track of how well Farr is getting along with various chairmen and ranking members and tries to smooth things over when it’s needed.

“You can’t move a bill if the chairman is angry at him,— she says. Farr “doesn’t hold grudges, so he’s more than happy to try and clear the air.—

One of the hardest parts of Dornatt’s job is working with the time difference between Washington and California and the toll it takes on the Congressman. Not only does the time change make phone calls to the district office tricky, but it also wears Farr out as he is often crisscrossing the country.

“For me [the hardest part is] always trying to gauge his energy level to make sure the info is sinking in. The distance is so far, — it’s a nine-hour trip door to door,— she says.

Another difficulty is getting word out back home about what the Congressman is doing in Washington. Dornatt says the media market in the district is so small that the newspapers only pay attention to local issues.

The newspapers are “so focused on local issues that they overlook Farr’s work,— she says.

Despite these stresses, Dornatt is happy to be working in Congress and still gets a kick out of participating in the political process.

“I love this institution,— Dornatt says. “People think government is a four-letter word, and I think it’s an agent of positive change, and I want to be a part of that.—