On the Ground: The Unsung Heroes of District Offices and How They Work
Members’ local offices create coalitions to rebuild, revitalize their hometowns
Jason Fabick had graduated from barber college and was looking for a place to open a shop in Kent, Ohio. He and his business partner, Jason Manion, wanted to wear sports jerseys, talk about football and cut hair at the same time.
“We moved into Acorn Alley,” Fabick said, referring to the development project in downtown Kent made possible with a Transportation Department grant. “This is an idea that Kent has had for a long time but didn’t have the funds to get these things going.”
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan’s district office worked with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, the city, Kent State University and the Portage Area Regional Transit Authority to secure $20 million for Kent.
The role of the district office was to help organize a group of stakeholders to appeal to the Department of Transportation for funding. It worked.
Acorn Alley came to fruition and has brought in businesses such as Jasons’ Barbershop, which has since expanded from two barbers to five, with room to grow. “We have a sixth chair,” Fabick said. “We will probably hire a sixth [barber] eventually.”
Not everyone sees this kind of federal spending as a good thing. Critics consider such grants to be one of the worst aspects of the legislative process. The House-passed fiscal 2013 Transportation-HUD bill would have eliminated the TIGER Grants program, which funded the Kent project.
But Fabick sees it as local politics at its best. And he has a lot of company among other Americans, whose views of their congressman — if not of Congress as a whole — are greatly shaped by their interactions with district and state offices.
Ask the workforce in West Virginia, where Sen. Jay Rockefeller traveled dozens of times to Japan to persuade Toyota to open a $400 million plant in the town of Buffalo. The Democrat’s state staff organized the meetings in West Virginia and accompanied him on some overseas trips.
Or ask the residents of Joplin, Mo., who were struck by an F5 tornado May 22, 2011. Republican Rep. Billy Long was on the ground the next day, pitching a tent next to the Red Cross and helping facilitate communication among the local, state and federal agencies involved.
The district staffers have long been the unsung heroes of congressional work. District work does not get nearly the same coverage as Hill activity, but its role is just as vital to the function of Congress.
District offices and D.C. offices have their own staffs — though occasionally traveling staffers go back and forth.
“In general, very different people are drawn to work in D.C. as compared to working in the district office,” said Susie Gorden, vice president of the nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation.
District staffers tend to have a longer tenure and more work experience, and are more likely to have children and close ties to the district, the CMF has found.
While D.C. staff feel the pressure of the grinding schedule and political tension, those in the state and district offices feel the real and immediate pressures of constituents in need. “There is a human component to the work they do. Instead of making a decision on a piece of legislation, they are looking a person directly in the eye,” Gorden said.
“District staff are connected to the district in a way that the D.C. staff isn’t,” she said. It is the district staff who find the “unforeseen consequences of legislation.” A prime example: “Any changes to veterans health coverage will be first reported to the district caseworker, not the military legislative assistant.”
The CMF says successful district offices are clear in managing expectations and clear in procedures for casework.
“A good district office knows what they can and cannot do and communicates that effectively,” Gorden said. Another predictor of success is if the district director and the D.C. chief of staff have a good working relationship.
In addition to the day-to-day casework, district offices often play a strategic role in helping members secure “big wins” such as relocating a major business, saving an existing business or securing funds for economic development.
“Getting a major business to relocate is a multilevel team effort” that must be led by the member, Gorden said, but with staff playing crucial roles. “Extremely well-connected district staff will work with other state and local agencies to create business development opportunities,” she said.
Chris Cupples, Ryan’s economic development coordinator, grew up near the lawmaker’s northeast Ohio district and continues to be part of the effort to develop downtown Kent.
“It’s great to see these cities that have gone through hardships over the last several decades expand, diversify and come alive again,” Cupples said. “Working with our constituents on a daily basis gives a perspective on how significant economic development efforts and resources from the federal government help local communities.”
And sometimes it can be the dogged determination of a member to make something happen. After 10 years and dozens of meetings in both Japan and West Virginia, Rockefeller — who spent three years as a student in Japan in the 1950s — persuaded Toyota that Buffalo, W.Va., was the ideal home for the company’s $400 million plant to produce four-cylinder Corolla engines. The plant had a projected initial workforce of 350. Total employment now is around 1,200.
When an emergency hits home, it’s the district office that is first to respond.
After the Joplin tornado, Long’s district office was a communications hub, staying in contact with city officials and monitoring the rescue from the Emergency Operations Center. When the local fire department decided to barricade some streets, residents couldn’t get in. Long learned of the problem and went to talk to the fire chief; the ban was quickly lifted.
“In those types of situations, you don’t react, you just act,” said Long, who spent eight straight days in Joplin.
Long said facilitating communication during an emergency is one of the best things a district office can do.
“The role of the congressman is to coordinate and make sure we have an understanding of what each of the agencies are doing,” Long said. “If people come to us with a question — for instance, someone had a pile of debris in their yard — then I found out that the Army Corps was responsible for the debris removal, so we took care of that.”
“After that, there was a tornado in [Indiana Republican] Todd Young’s district. My chief called his chief and went through what they should do and who they should reach out to,” Long said. “My office had already been there and done that. We could save them some steps and keep them from making missteps.”