A Longtime Chief Resets the Clock With Fleming

Gartzke Took Over After Top Aide’s Illness

Posted October 21, 2009 at 3:57pm

Sitting at his tidy desk in his Longworth House Office Building office, royal blue curtains parted neatly behind him and a bookshelf featuring multiple volumes and photos of his family, Dana Gartzke looks right at home in his role as chief of staff even though he’s only been the chief for Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) since July. Before that, though, he spent six months as chief for Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) and 14 years as chief for then-Rep. Dave Weldon (R-Fla.).

But there was a time when this was the last place Gartzke ever thought he would be. Back in the mid-1980s, when he and his wife were just beginning their family and establishing a life in Florida, Gartzke was content to be a political onlooker. He had a good job at an engineering company, and in his free time he organized a local group that interviewed candidates for office about their stances on issues important to conservatives.

It wasn’t until Weldon, a friend and fellow political observer, decided to run for Congress in 1994 that Gartzke decided it was time to make a career change.

“I had always followed politics on the fringe,— he said. “That hobby turned into a vocation.—

Gartzke had an opportunity to test his skills as Weldon’s campaign manager, which turned out to be a demanding position, considering the race included a primary, a runoff and a general election.

“It was just intriguing to follow this as it went along,— he recalled.

No sooner did Weldon clinch the race than he asked Gartzke to come to Washington as his chief of staff. After consultation with his wife, Gartzke decided the time was right for a career change.

That was 14 years ago, but Gartzke says these days he’s reminded more than ever of those early years in Washington.

“That was 1994, that was the majority-maker class,— he said, referring to the year Republicans regained control of Congress. “The debate then was on health care and energy taxes. So I’m seeing a déjà vu, sitting here every day.—

Considering how little progress has been made since then, Gartzke said it will be “interesting to see how this all turns out this year.—

“Obamacare, cap-and-trade, those aren’t new. They’re just packaged differently,— he said.

Some things, of course, have changed.

“There seems to be more polarization now,— he reflected. “I think the environment has become coarser for the worse.—

Health care and energy debates aren’t the only things giving him flashbacks. Since Fleming is a freshman Member, Gartzke has been drawing on his experience of working for Weldon during his first term.

“I feel like I’ve reset the clock, going back 14 years,— he joked.

Going from having a passing interest in politics to being at the center of the storm was a real eye-opener for Gartzke.

“They say if you don’t like seeing sausage made, don’t come to Washington, and that’s very true,— he said. “It can be depressing to see the ways things do get done. But the end result is always worth it.—

Gartzke joined Fleming’s team in July under less-than-ideal circumstances. Although the timing was right for him to pursue a new job (Weldon had recently retired), Gartzke replaced Lee Fletcher, who worked in the office until he was diagnosed with cancer.

Fletcher’s big personality and political legacy was widely known, and while Gartzke didn’t know his predecessor well personally, he certainly knew him by reputation. The two men met as Gartzke prepared to take over as Fleming’s chief.

“He was all business, all shop,— Gartzke recalled of their meeting. “He was thinking of Dr. Fleming and that was like him, from what I’ve been told. I’m grateful to have had that time with him.—

Fletcher died Sept. 30.

Fleming went several months without a chief after Fletcher left the office in the early part of the year because of his failing health. So when Gartzke came in, he wanted to bring something fresh to the office while recognizing that his new team would need time to transition.

“I knew they were going to miss Lee, and I wanted to be sensitive to their detachment,— Gartzke said.

Fleming seems grateful for the help his new chief has brought him.

“He has made an impact from the very beginning,— Fleming said. “I went essentially without a chief for six months. He got us to the next level very quickly.—

Now that he’s had some time to settle in and bring his personal management style to the new office, Gartzke can reflect on how that style has changed since he first came to Capitol Hill.

“You always like to mature as an individual, and you realize what you can and can’t do,— he said. “It’s just being more level-headed and calm about everything around you.—