When a Warner Replaces a Warner

Posted June 23, 2009 at 6:33pm

For more than three decades, staffers have been answering telephones on Capitol Hill with the phrase, “Hello, Sen. Warner’s office.— Mail has been addressed to “Sen. Warner.— And e-mail addresses have ended in “warner.senate.gov.—

While there is something to be said for the comforts of tradition, the passing of the torch from former Sen. John Warner (R) to current Sen. Mark Warner (D) has added a whole new level of confusion to this office for the Senator from Virginia.

This may be one of the few times in history that a Senate office has moved from Republican to Democrat with no change in a Senator’s last name. It may also be one of the rare instances in which staffers stayed on board with no concern for party affiliation.

Constituents are often befuddled. Mark Warner has been in office for more than six months, and his staff still receives phone calls and letters from voters seeking John Warner. In fact, some of the staffers in Mark Warner’s office have taken to jokingly referring to the Senator as “Warner 2.0.—

“I had that in John Warner’s office, too,— says senior legislative coordinator Leah Ralph, who has worked in both offices. “People would call and be confused about which Warner they were talking to. That does happen. It doesn’t help that we kept the same front phone number.—

Despite the occasional mix-up, staffers in Mark Warner’s office say the transition from one Senator to the other was easy. While the two men hail from different sides of the aisle, they developed a close friendship while Mark Warner served as governor and John Warner was Senator. And then as Mark Warner prepared to take office in Congress, John Warner did all that he could to smooth the change over.

“The John Warner people were all just fabulous during the transition, and it started at the top,— says Luke Albee, chief of staff to Mark Warner. “There was a genuine affection between Sen. Warner and John Warner.—

When asked about his relationship with Mark Warner, John Warner is quick to cite Senate ethics laws. Because John Warner is a partner at the Hogan & Hartson law firm, he is prohibited from advising Mark Warner on staff and other such matters. That doesn’t mean, however, that the two can’t have social visits.

“We are good, strong personal friends because of many years of joint efforts on behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia,— John Warner says.

[IMGCAP(1)]A large reason why the transition was an easy one may be the fact that three John Warner staffers stayed on board to work for Mark Warner, even though the former is a Republican and the latter a Democrat.

“On the Hill, I think [partisanship] is something to consider,— Ralph says. “I think this is a really unique situation. Everyone knows they have a working relationship and that there’s a mutual respect there.—

Mark Warner was pleased to see some of John Warner’s staff stay through the transition, adding that he is more concerned about a job well done than about party affiliation.

“Both of us have this sense that competence ought to trump partisanship,— Mark Warner says. “I’d much rather focus on competence than whether they have an R’ or a D’ next to their names.—

John Warner echoes this bipartisan sentiment, saying that when he arrived in the Senate in 1979, more-senior Members told him that the Virginia delegation worked together despite party affiliation.

“By and large you’ve got to look at the framework, at how the Virginia Congressional delegation works,— John Warner says. “It works as a team for the betterment of all Virginians. These young people who have left my staff and gone to other staffs are carrying on the tradition.—

As for the three staffers who stayed on, for some of them it was not a question of party, but a deep love for the commonwealth. Staff assistant Jay Williamson, a native of Alexandria, worked for John Warner for a year and a half before beginning his tenure with Mark Warner.

“It goes back to the state,— Williamson says. “I think that when you have a chance to work for two men like former Sen. Warner and current Sen. Warner, partisanship doesn’t really play a part in it because ultimately they’re here to serve the state, not parties.—

Williamson says he received a bit of heckling from his Republican friends when he decided to cross the aisle, but adds, “everyone’s still in my phone book.—

Mark Brunner, a national security adviser, says that he has always considered himself a moderate and stayed in the office because it was an opportunity to continue working on a familiar and beloved topic.

“The defense issues in Virginia don’t change,— he says. “Both Mark Warner and John Warner are very focused on constituent services and the troops — active duty, guard and reserve.—

Now that they’ve gotten to know their new boss, all three staffers say they plan to continue working in the office for a while.

“I can’t think of two better bosses,— Brunner says.