Aaron Fritschner’s first day on Capitol Hill was Dec. 14, 2012.
As the only intern in New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s office, he was being trained how to answer the phones and talk to constituents.
And then a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, the same day.
Nadler’s Upper West Side constituents were upset, and Fritschner was there, taking their calls. Today, the 34-year-old is the communications director for another Democrat, Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr., with one issue portfolio: guns.
Answering phone calls is a major part of day-to-day responsibilities for interns and staff assistants in Congress, many of them hoping to climb the Capitol Hill ladder.
Junior staff aren’t often allowed to talk to the press in their official capacities. But they’re on the front lines of today’s increasingly polarized politics, facing a whole range of approbation, vitriol and, sometimes, violent threats, directed at the office and them personally.
A crash course in democracy
Jeffrey Kempler, a 26-year-old special assistant in Rep. Jim Banks’ office, can think of a few people whose experiences answering phones in different offices have dissuaded them from pursuing Hill careers.
But he loved it, and thinks it’s the best learning experience for anyone coming to Capitol Hill. He joined the Indiana Republican’s office as an intern and continued to answer calls as a staff assistant.
“I love the fact that in the U.S., you can read about something in the local or national paper, call your representative and someone will pick up the phone and someone will listen to you,” he said by phone Wednesday.
Kempler is from New York, which couldn’t be farther from Indiana’s 3rd District, one of the most conservative seats in an increasingly red state. Answering constituent calls has exposed him to how people in different regions of the country approach different issues.
“It also taught me all politics is local,” Kempler said, noting that plenty of Hoosiers would call in to tell the congressman how his foreign policy votes affected them. At the end of each day, he’d send Banks a list of all the comments taken over the phone.
Answering calls may be an unglamorous part of Capitol Hill life, but former staff assistants say it’s set them up well for a career in public service.
“I don’t think anyone gets into it entirely for that,” Fritschner said. “But if you don’t like that aspect of the job, it’s probably not the right career for you.”
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On Fritschner’s third day in Nadler’s office, a man on the phone called him a “Nazi bastard.”
“I still remember his voice,” Fritschner recalled.
He can’t remember exactly how that call ended: “I probably said something like, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ something that would sound awkward and lame to me now.” Abusive callers often hung up on him.
“It’s nothing personal against you if they say something mean to you,” Kempler said. “I just block those out and move on.”
Sometimes callers aren’t even constituents or have been organized by an outside interest group.
Beyer’s office recently received a spate of calls in support of President Donald Trump’s border wall, which the congressman does not support. He represents a safe Democratic district that rejected Trump by more than 50 points in 2016, so the calls stood out.
His office soon discovered the calls were prompted by a national advertising campaign from the political action committee of the House Freedom Caucus. Beyer’s staff told callers he appreciated hearing from them about the wall, but they disagreed on the issue.
Offices of both parties experienced a high volume of calls during the debate over the Republican health care bill. “It was a little trial by fire in March 2017,” said Kempler, whose boss voted for the GOP repeal of the 2010 health care law.
And then there are the regulars — people who call all the time, usually to complain.
“You end up striking up a friendship with them — you talk about what you’re doing that weekend and they tell you,” Kempler said.
As an intern for New Mexico Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, Fritschner screened calls for a telephone town hall on abuses at Veterans Affairs medical centers. He remembers speaking to one woman whose husband had died of cancer while waiting for VA doctors to see her.
“It was a really, really tough phone call,” he recalled. “She just really needed someone to talk to.”
But it made Fritschner feel good about the work he was pursuing. If he’d heard that story at Trader Joe’s, where he was working during his internship, he wouldn’t have had any recourse.
“I’d just be someone hearing the story,” he said.
But hearing that story while working for a congressional office, Fritschner at least felt like he might be able to help.
“As a young intern, being able to be part of the solution in a small way was very motivating for me,” he said.