Tag Archives: Institutional Memories

The End of An Era

Last night’s Domenici staff celebration was an absolute delight. Lots of familiar faces, many of which I hadn’t seen in years, and plenty of opportunities — usually starting with the question, “How old are your kids now?” — to feel really, really old.

Domenici staffers — perhaps a reflection of the Senator’s own rather laid-back demeanor — always seem to always be among the funniest and most self-deprecating people around, and I spent much of the evening, as it seems I spent much of my seven years on the staff, in one hilarious conversation after another. As I chatted with one colleague, for example, who had served as one of my Legislative Correspondents before moving on to the private sector, our discussion went like this:

Me: “…so where did you go after leaving the Hill?”

Him: “I got into banking, and worked for a while at Lehman Brothers. But now I work for the federal government again.”

Me: “Oh really? For who?”

Him: “Citibank.”

*insert rimshot here*

That was par for the course for the evening. And also keeping with the habits that made us famous, the open bar was completely decimated — it looked like it had been hit by a bomb, frankly — while the free food remained largely untouched. Old habits die hard.

There was a hodgepodge of memorabilia for the taking — mostly plaques and awards that couldn’t be packed away, and framed artwork that had hung on the walls since . . . well, forever. And for collectors of political rarities, there was an enormous stack of campaign stickers for the 2008 Re-Election Campaign That Never Was:

The Senator himself made brief remarks, his formerly booming voice (the one I always called his “speechifyin’ voice”) now raspy but still authoritative. “I’m hoping I was able to give each of you a little something,” he said to us, “and I think you all gave a little bit of yourselves back to New Mexico, and to the country.”

The celebration was touted as commemorating “the end of an empire,” but I never really felt “empire” was the right word. It sounds a bit too . . . iron-fisted or militaristic, which was never the way Senator, or his staff, did things. Perhaps “the end of an era” is a better way of putting it — an era of unequalled service to New Mexico, to the United States Senate, and to the country, that spanned across four decades.

When we’ve had staff reunions in the past, we tended to break up into clusters defined, as I see it now, largely by Presidential terms. Always, it seems, standing closest to the Senator were the 70’s Staff — the cool kids, who got in the door first and went through the rough and tumble Nixon-Ford-Carter years. Then there was The 80’s Staff, composed of disciplined budgeteers, who worked through the Reagan era, sometimes shepherding Reagan’s budgets through, other times fighting his tax cuts. The 90’s Staff were the acerbic workhorses — an offbeat group that fenced and bantered in the tumultous politics of the Newt Gingrich/Bill Clinton era — while “The ‘Oughts”, serving from 2000 on, are the committed policy mavens of post 9/11 America. Last night, however, there were no cliques or clusters; instead, it was simply one enormous, extended family.

My evening ended on an entirely appropriate and fitting note. As a colleague and I were leaving, we stepped off of the elevator on the first floor of the Dirksen Building, only to run into Senator and Mrs. Domenici, who were on their way back in. “Senator forgot his coat,” Mrs. Domenici explained in that disarmingly apologetic way she has. Almost on autopilot, we steered the Domenicis off to one side, sitting them down near the security station in the care of two Capitol Police, then went back upstairs to retrieve the Senator’s coat.

We delivered it to him at the front door of the Dirksen Building, then — again, almost on autopilot — waited until he had squirmed his way into the wool topcoat, then held open the door as he and Mrs. Domenici passed through it and into the brisk December night.

Once a staffer, always a staffer. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

People For Pete

Tonight, down on Capitol Hill, is the final gathering of former and current staff for my old boss, U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici, who’s retiring from office. I wasn’t able to attend any of the similar events in New Mexico, so I’m glad Barb and I will be able to make tonight’s celebration.

While cleaning out my basement last month, I came across a manila folder crammed with mementos from my Hill years, and found this photo of the Senator’s personal staff, taken at the annual Christmas party in 1993:

That’s me in the back row, just right of center, with the dark red sweater and the beard, trying way too hard to look older than my 26 years.

Fifteen years later, I not only can still name nearly everyone in this picture, but I’m still good friends with many of them. This particular batch made up the Senator’s personal staff for much of the mid-1990s, and because we worked together for so long — a stretch of five years with a relatively cohesive staff is a rarity on the Hill — we were a tight knit group. To this day, we still refer to ourselves as the Domenici Mafia.

Of the members of our Mafia, Ari Fleischer — kneeling in the front row in the Santa hat — is probably the best known and most famous alumnus, serving as President George W. Bush’s press secretary in the early days of his administration. But the rest of the gang aren’t doing too shabbily, either. Some are serving in high-ranking positions in the federal government, while others are lobbyists. Some ran for — and won — locally-elected offices. There are attorneys and forest rangers and health care workers, retirees and stay-at-home parents. A few worked for the Senator right until the end. And there’s not a bad banana in the bunch.

I’m looking forward to seeing many of them tonight, along with countless others who made up the staff over the Senator’s 36 years in office. It’s always amazing to me how quickly we all fall together, even when we haven’t seen each other in over a decade. You’re never really out of the family.

Institutional Memories: St. Pete

I moved to Washington, D.C. to begin working for U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici in March 1990, when I was 22 years old. At that time, Domenici was just wrapping up his third term in office — meaning he had been serving as a U.S. Senator for 18 of my 22 years on this planet. To us twentysomethings, he was already an institution, a name and face we’d been seeing on television and in the pages of the Albuquerque Journal our entire lives.

While New Mexicans have always called him “Pete,” to those of us working in his office, he was always “Senator.” It wasn’t something he asked us to call him — he would probably have preferred that we call him Pete as well — but it just seemed natural to us; he had earned it. Plus, it instilled in most of us a sense of protocol and respect that we always thought was somewhat lacking in other Congressional offices — and to this day, I still refer to any elected officials by their formal titles. (I once called over to the office of New Mexico Congressman Steve Schiff, and spent several minutes on the phone with a staffer who kept telling me “Steve thinks…” and “Steve wants to…” When I hung up, I sat at my desk for several minutes thinking, “Do I know a Steve over there?” before finally realizing he meant Congressman Schiff.)

Anyway, although we called him “Senator,” and constituents called him “Pete,” to many in New Mexico, he was more deserving of the nickname the media had at first snarkily, then affectionately, given him: St. Pete.

Senator always laughed at this title, and with good reason: he’s a humble guy. It’s always easy to sneer at elected officials — especially powerful, long-serving members of Congress — as out-of-touch, easily influenced, and overly full of themselves. And certainly, there are some like that. But Senator wasn’t — and still isn’t. He’s the son of Albuquerque grocers, both Italian immigrants. His parents didn’t speak English well, and always insisted that their son learn the language immediately, go to school, and take advantage of what their adopted country had to offer.

I’d say he lived up to their dreams for him. After attending the University of New Mexico (go Lobos!), he briefly pitched for New Mexico’s Triple-A baseball team, the Albuquerque Dukes (his real claim to fame as a pitcher, he once told me, was that he had hit Ernie Banks in the back), taught middle school math, served as an attorney and then as Chairman of the Albuquerque City Council, the de facto mayor of the city. After a failed bid for governor in 1970, he successfully ran for U.S. Senator in 1972. He’s been there ever since.

Yet, despite being a New Mexico institution, Senator remains a regular guy, with endearing regular guy habits. He walks to work. He apologizes to his wife for leaving a ring on her coffee table. He’s a terrible driver. When he sits in a chair, he pulls one leg up underneath him, carefully hidden behind his desk. He and his wonderful wife, Nancy, raised eight children. He forgets names. He enjoys his wine. He laughs at dumb jokes. And he treats people with an almost disarming respect that makes every constituent feel like a close personal friend — probably his biggest strength as an elected official. In my time, we were forever answering phone calls and letters from “close friends” who, we discovered, had talked with him only once in a restaurant in Socorro.

He took good care of his constituents, and his state. Any New Mexican who wanted to meet with him was given a moment on his schedule — and let me tell you, he kept quite a schedule. Every day, each staffer was given a copy of his multi-paged schedule — always carefully and deliberately typed, on a manual typewriter, by his long-time assistant, Angela — with his life scheduled in fifteen-minute sized chunks. And always, always, constituents were part of that day. If he was in his office, he would spend 15 minutes with them, discussing concerns and taking pictures. And if he wasn’t in his office, we were always instructed to walk them over to wherever he may have been — whether in committee or on the Senate floor — where Senator always took a moment to step away from business to chat. Out of touch? Hardly.

As a legislator, he’s always fought passionately for the issues he believes in. During my seven years in his office, he was either ranking member or chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and budget drove almost everything we did. Want to create a new program? Great — just come up with a way of paying for it. He was a stickler for keeping the books in order, and made a name for himself by standing up to even Republican presidents when he thought tax cuts were too irresponsible or new programs too expensive. There were programs he liked that he voted against simply because no one had come up with a way to pay for them. It was a principled stand, though not always a popular one.

Away from the budget, he believes strongly in investing in our energy policies, and continues to be one of the Congress’ most impassioned advocates for those suffering from mental illness.

Last October, citing health reasons, Senator announced he would not seek re-election. His retirement is a genuine loss, not only for New Mexico, but for the U.S. Senate, where very few of the Old Guard remain who still respect the institution, respect their colleagues, respect their constituents, and understand the advantage of being able to disagree without being disagreeable.

For the last six months, New Mexicans have, quite rightly, been honoring his life and achievements with one celebratory dinner or event after another — including one this weekend in Albuquerque. I’ve not been able to attend any of them, and thus I appreciate you staying here with me for just a moment while I’ve said a bit about him.

Senator, I thank you for your service to your country, your state, and your community. More than anything, I thank you for your basic decency. Those of us who worked for you consider ourselves part of one large extended family, and I feel very honored to have played even a small part in your exceptional legacy.

Institutional Memories: Prelude

My First Real Job After College (apart from the comic shoppe gig, I mean, which was Fun and Kept Me In Comics but wasn’t really a Proper Career) was working as a Legislative Correspondent for U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici.

I walked into Domenici’s office in the Senate Dirksen Office Building (it’s the one that was built in the 1950s, and has all the charm of an old high school) on Tuesday, March 20, 1990. My job as a legislative correspondent — a fancy term for “letter writer” that looks really, really great on your very first ever business card, embossed with a gold U.S. Senate seal — entailed drafting the guts of letters responding to New Mexicans who had written to the Senator about public lands, veterans affairs, or government pensions.

I didn’t get to handle any of the hot ticket items, like abortion or gun control or Social Security, or any of the stuff that makes the front page; my busiest and most high-profile issue, at least for a while, was probably over whether the Mexican Spotted Owl should be designated as endangered. But I was officially in The Game now — and from my small but still front row seat I had the chance to see how the Congress worked, and I was learning a lot about the issues, the legislative process, politics, and, even more fascinating, the members of Congress themselves.

Like many young people who come to DC — and I was 22 when I started working in Domenici’s office — I had taken the job “just for a while.” Lots of people come to work in Congressional offices to get a bit of experience in government and the legislative process before going off to law school, but I was one of those odd ducks who had zero interest in becoming an attorney, mainly because I just didn’t have the passion for it. (My interest in the law was derived from, and limited mainly to, detective novels and Batman comics.) In fact, I’m almost embarassed to admit that I really had no plan whatsoever. My intent was simply to do the best I could in my little job, learn as much as I could about government and the legislative process, and then see where I could go from there.

And then I got lucky. Domenici was re-elected to his fourth term in November 1990, and a number of senior staffers jumped to other jobs, leaving open several nice Legislative Assistant positions — the meat-and-potatoes jobs, where you become the expert on a particular issue or issues, and directly advise your Senator or Congressman. Making things even more interesting, there was a new Legislative Director coming in — the person who directs legislative policy, and who serves as the main conduit between the Senator and the legislative staff — who essentially had the opportunity to make her own staff.

To her immense credit, she promoted me and several other of my snot-nosed twentysomething coworkers into those plum legislative assistant positions — an incredibly lucky break that I’m still grateful for to this day (some people kick around in Congressional offices for years without getting one of those legislative assistant positions). There was a shuffling of issues and responsibilities, and I became the lead staffer for labor, welfare reform, job training, civil rights, education, and the arts — all issues I cared for deeply.

But something else also happened. During my year as a legislative correspondent, I had developed a reputation as a wordsmith, mainly through my ability to craft responses to what we called The Headscratchers — those letters you really had no idea what to do with. There was the fellow, for example, who wanted the Senator to alert Geraldo Rivera because he had been duped and drugged (allegedly!) by his much younger girlfriend. Or the guy who sent photos of his naked, flabby body with red Sharpie arrows pointing to the portions of his anatomy where aliens had implanted microchips. That sort of thing. I was pulled aside by the new Legislative Director who informed me that in addition to my legislative duties, I would now be responsible for drafting a number of the Senator’s higher profile floor statements, articles, and speeches.

Suddenly, my “just for a while” job had become a career.

Still to come: St. Pete

Institutional Memories

The short version of my resume — the one that appears on my book jacket, and which people usually read when introducing me at events — mentions that I served as a speechwriter for two U.S. Senators. Just that little nugget of information — and the words “U.S. Senators” — invariably leads to questions about life on Capitol Hill, my impressions of the Congress and the two members I’ve worked for, peeks behind the curtain at how the legislative process really works, even who I think Washington Irving might vote for in the upcoming elections.

I get the impression that people sometimes think they’re imposing or trying to uncover some Matter of National Security when they ask me whether Congressmen really read their mail, but the truth is, I love answering those kinds of questions. But it took me a bit to realize something: to those of us who live and work in the Washington, DC, area, things like politics, the legislative process, and the Capitol Building are such a part of our everyday lives that we often fail to remember how strange or magical or weird they may seem to everyone else. Even if you don’t work in government in this area, you still walk past the White House while on your way to get coffee, your daily newspaper is still The Washington Post, and you still have to shove past camera-laden tourists on the Metro, none of whom seem to get the whole stand-on-the-right, walk-on-the-left thing. To us, it’s our neighborhood; to the rest of the world, it’s a movie or postcard. Just as I was dazzled by New York City — I’m in awe of the people that actually live and work there, with a romantic perception of the place that, I’m sure, doesn’t reflect reality — so, too, are people fascinated by Washington, DC, and Capitol Hill.

From time to time, then — since people seem always to be asking, and since I seem to be always looking for Regular Features for this blog — I’ll share with you some of my stories, memories, and impressions of my Decade on Capitol Hill. And if you’ve got questions, I’ll do my best to answer them. It’s all part of the public service we like to perform here on this little corner of Literary Conceits.

Stay tuned.