When Ralph Vanni first took up his post in front of the mixing board, he barely knew his way around a microphone, let alone the finer points of Jefferson’s manual. But he had the best seat in the House to learn.
It was his job to make sure the voices of Congress rang out loud and clear.
“The only way you listen and learn is by sitting there. It takes a while to learn the parliamentary procedures. You recognize the members, whether it’s senators or House members, but the format is different every day,” said Vanni, 59.
The longtime senior audio technician retired this month after a decadeslong career on Capitol Hill. For 34 years, as tempers flared, speechmakers droned and oratory soared, he switched on the mics that made it all happen.
He’s run sound in both chambers and through multiple power grabs. He’s seen speakers rise and fall, and party dynamics shift. He was there when Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and two different Bushes stood on the House dais to deliver the State of the Union.
One day stands out from the rest. His single favorite memory was supervising audio in 2015 when Pope Francis came to the Hill and urged lawmakers to heal the “open wounds” of a hurting planet.
“It was the very first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress ever in history. And when you see him in his white religious garments come through the door — you know, it was pretty moving,” Vanni said.
Even before he found his way to the mixing board, Vanni was a child of Congress. His father worked as a foreman in the Senate Cabinet Shop and helped him land a summer gig at the age of 16. It was a small-time internship with Mike Mansfield of Montana, the Senate majority leader at the time.
The year was 1976, and Vanni’s primary task was gathering obituaries from the Billings Gazette newspaper for the senator, who wrote letters of condolence by hand.
“[I remember] being a 16-year-old kid bringing Mike Mansfield a newspaper in the morning and watching him smoke that pipe and asking, ‘Mr. Mansfield, can I get you anything?’ He goes, ‘Just put the paper on the desk,’” Vanni said.
After Mansfield retired to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Vanni interned for the Senate Office of the Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper. Next up was college in Florida, where he played baseball and studied criminal justice, but it wasn’t long before he was back on the Hill.
“You can study all you want in college, but until you come out here and find out how the inner workings are, that’s the education of being on Capitol Hill — no doubt about it,” Vanni said.
He worked brief full-time stints on the Senate Appointments Desk, created after a bomb exploded in the Capitol in 1983, and in the Senate Cloakroom. When an opportunity in the audio division of the Architect of the Capitol’s Office came along in 1985, he seized it.
That’s how he developed his ear for the rhythms and speech patterns of power in Washington — and honed his own “gift of gab.” If patterns started to feel stale, all it took was one look around to remember the grand scale of Capitol Hill.
“You realize that you’re working in the most beautiful building in America,” he said.
He’ll miss his fellow co-workers and his job, Vanni said, but he plans to keep busy in retirement by spending time with his family, working on his farm in southern Maryland, and escaping to southwest Florida, where he can golf.
His very first boss, he noted, has since been immortalized in the Capitol with a room bearing his name: The Mike Mansfield Room.
“You don’t get a room named after you off the Senate floor if you weren’t somebody,” Vanni said.
As for his own legacy, that’s not written in stone. But if the voices of lawmakers still echo in the Capitol, it’s thanks in part to him.
“I don’t think they’re going to name a room after Ralph Vanni just for running audio here,” he said. “Here today, gone tomorrow. Just do the job, and as long as nobody complains there was a problem, everything was OK.”
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