Reporter’s Notebook: The unseen heroes of Congress

Their names don’t hang on a nameplate by the office door. They don’t appear on the ballot in November. They lack a Congressional voting card.  They are the unseen in politics. They are Congressional aides.  REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: SITTING ON THE TARMAC Congressional staffers come in all forms and age-ranges. There are the grizzled, budget reconciliation and House Rules Committee veterans in their sixties who have roamed Capitol Hill since the Speakership of Jim Wright, D-Texas, in the late 1980s. But you also find the whip-smart, 21-year-old who just graduated from Elon, answering the phones at the front desk of a freshman office on the sixth floor of Longworth House Office Building. And then there are all of the aides in between.  Chiefs of staff. Policy experts on U.S. territories. Staffers who toil on Judiciary Committee nominations. Professional investigators from the Oversight Committee. Economists from the Joint Economic Committee. Social media managers. Speech writers. They work late at night, crafting bill text in the office of Legislative Counsel deep in the bowels of the Cannon House Office Building. They rise before the crack of dawn on Sunday to refine talking points before their boss appears on a Sunday show.  They stand, just out of the shot, holding umbrellas over the heads of Congressmen so they aren’t drenched during a pop-up July thunderstorm during a news conference at the House Triangle. Male aides sometimes stand off to the side, holding the purse of a female lawmaker. “This is my favorite part of the job,” joked one aide sardonically years ago, while clasping the shoulder bag of his boss during a photo op. No one notices the aides if things go well. The speech goes off without a hitch. The amendment garners bipartisan support. Perhaps the aides score a pat on the back by the boss. An extra day off. But people notice if things don’t go well. And in those instances, that’s where the lawmaker gets the blame. The person with the nameplate on the door. The name on the ballot. The voting card. This is why most lawmakers are keenly aware of how the aides who work in obscurity are essential to their success — even if no one else notices.  Good aides help lawmakers thrive in their jobs. 28-year-old Emma Thomson and 27-year-old Zachery Potts were two of those people.  REPUBLICANS, DEMOCRATS REACT TO REP. WALORSKI’S TRAGIC CAR CRASH DEATH: ‘JUST THE WORST NEWS’ Thomson and Potts died recently in the northern Indiana car crash which killed Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and the driver of another car, Edith Schmucker. Thomson was from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and served as Walorski’s communications director. Potts was from Mishawaka, Ind., and worked as Walorski’s campaign manager and district director.  Thomson previously worked for Reps. John Joyce, R-Penn., and Michael Burgess, R-Texas. Potts also chaired the St. Joseph County, Indiana, Republican Party.  “They were doing what aides always do when we’re out of session,” said one GOP lawmaker on the phone to Fox shortly after the accident. “Going around the district. Doing meetings.”  And everyone who knows anything about Congress knows this is exactly what happens during a Congressional recess. Especially a scheduled long recess in August.  Congress takes these breaks so Members of Congress can return to their home districts and states. Make speeches. Visit with Rotarians. Appear at a ribbon cutting at the new hospital. Meet with constituents on a Saturday morning at a “Congress on Your Corner” event or “Congress at the Grocery” session.  They drive all over expansive districts and states, pressing the flesh. Reaching out to the people they represent. Appearing on local radio. Volunteering at food banks.  And it’s the tireless staffers which make it happen. The aides shuttle the lawmakers between events in the middle of packed schedules. That’s so the Member can make calls to local mayors or speak with someone on their whip team back in Washington about an upcoming vote.  It’s go, go, go. And the aides make it happen, happen, happen. Emma Thomson and Zach Potts were doing what all Congressional aides do that day: supporting their Member. But simultaneously, they were supporting the people of the 2nd Congressional district. Aides like Thomson and Potts are legion in Congress. The hours are grueling. The pay is low. The reward? Knowing that there’s another big event to plan back in the district which will consume the weekend. Knowing that it’s 11:30 at night and the boss wants the speech re-written — from scratch — before they speak to the Council on Foreign Relations at 10 a.m. Knowing that you’re at the Nationals game. It’s the bottom of the 5th. But the congresswoman needs you back in Rayburn to talk to manufacturers in the district so they aren’t blindsided by a new amendment.  Over the years, I have walked into Congressional offices late at night and found aides asleep with their head down on their desk — because they have another four hours of work ahead of them. They were sneaking a catnap. I’ve seen aides miss flights to France — where they were supposed to be the maid of honor in a wedding — because votes on the floor took longer than they should have. FUNERAL FOR REP. JACKIE WALORSKI SET FOR THURSDAY Congressional aides sacrifice. They give. They take the heat. And they do it under the radar. Emma Thomson and Zach Potts personified the unwritten, Congressional creed of staffers. There are thousands more like them on Capitol Hill. Working in out-of-the-way offices in nooks of the Hart Senate Office Building. Behind non-descript doors down darkened corridors in the basement of the Capitol.  They’re all there. You just don’t see most of them. Lots of people in Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District had heard of Jackie Walorski. A smaller contingent of people across the Hoosier State knew of her. As a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill, Walorski even had a limited national profile.  But almost no one had ever heard of Emma Thomson and Zach Potts. A plane carrying late Rep. Mickey Leland, D-Texas, crashed in Ethiopia in August, 1989. Leland aides Hugh Anderson Johnson Jr. and Patrice Yvonne Johnson perished alongside the Congressman. Another aide, Joyce Francine Williams, also died. She worked for late Rep. Ron Dellums, D-Calif. Aide Gabe Sherman died in 2011 when a gunman shot former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz. Also wounded: Gifford’s aide and future Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., as well as staffer Pam Simon. Their names don’t hang on the Congressional nameplate. They lack a Congressional voting card. Their names don’t appear on the ballot. But Congressional aides are often as valuable as the lawmakers themselves.
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