Capitol Hill mourns recent death of former Senate staffer

On June 4, a team of 30 people will gather for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s National Race for the Cure.

Their team’s name: Team Lizzie.

Their team motto: “I am Lizzie, hear me roar!”
 
 
 


They will run to honor a woman who was a proud mother, a loving wife, a former dancer, a wearer of red shoes, a passionate debater, a skilled Washington insider, a player of Trivial Pursuit, often the youngest and smartest woman in any room she entered, and, at the age of 31, a victim of breast cancer.

But “victim” is hardly a word that can — or should — be associated with Elizabeth Prostic, a former Senate staffer who died at the end of March.

A Kansas City native, Prostic became involved in politics after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 with a double major in political science and diplomatic history. After working on Sen. Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) presidential campaign, she moved to Washington to work for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as a staff assistant. It wasn’t long before Prostic made her way up the Capitol Hill ladder to become a professional staffer for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

“She was really smart and really polished,” recalled Paul Margie, a former staffer for Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who worked with Prostic to develop what has come to be known as the Tech Forum, officially the Forum for Technology and Innovation.

Beyond that, her friends said, Prostic already had a well-developed understanding of politics and policy, and an ability to separate herself from partisan politics.

“It was a deadly combo,” recalled Katie Braden Huffard, a former legislative assistant for Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and a close friend. “She was very bright on policy but also politically savvy.”

Prostic was also a woman who came to the Capitol determined to get things done.

“I think she was a little more of an activist than people thought,” said her husband, Mike Lundblad, explaining how interested Prostic had become, as a board member of Women in Aerospace, in getting young women involved in math and science. Prostic had not been interested in science in college, but she learned to apply her passion for women’s issues to anything she worked on.

Prostic also had a lighter side. She enjoyed the latest office gossip, her morning coffee break and teasing her co-workers about their choices of ties, grading them on a scale of A to F.

Huffard recalled her friend’s appreciation of good fashion and their giddy trip together to find Huffard her wedding gown. “Lizzie had an opinion about every dress and took complete charge of the store,” Huffard said, laughing, “and she did it in the most graceful way. They [the salespeople] all loved her.”

“She loved red shoes, her pearls and looking immaculate. She did not lose her femininity at all in this old boys network.”

Prostic used her polished exterior to downplay her youth. She was always worried that people would not take her seriously if they knew her real age, Huffard said.

After the 2000 presidential election, Prostic accepted a position with the administration, working for the Commerce Department as a senior policy adviser to Secretary of Commerce Don Evans.

In that same year, on June 10, Prostic married her college boyfriend in a large outdoor country-club wedding in Kansas City. He was a University of Virginia English doctoral candidate and self-proclaimed liberal. The couple laughingly referred to themselves as Mary Matalin and James Carville.

Margie, the Rockefeller staffer, recalled the frequent and heated debates that would go on when the couples got together. “That was probably why she could be so bipartisan.”

That Prostic would marry someone whose politics differed so fundamentally from her own surprised no one. She was a person who liked to surround herself with a variety of people and opinions. “She handpicked people. She was the nexus,” Huffard said.

The diagnosis of stage-four metastatic cancer came in October 2004, four years after they married. Stage four is the most advanced stage of cancer — the cells have already begun to spread inside the body. According to the American Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for stage four is 16 percent.

By then, Prostic had joined Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal as a managing director in its lobbying practice. As her new boss, Elliot Portnoy, put it, “I was bowled over, she was incredibly engaging, dynamic, poised, the kind of person you immediately want on your side in any sort of battle.”

Outside the office, she was finishing her fourth year of night classes at George Washington University’s law school, enjoying her first few months of motherhood (Harper was born June 10, 2004 — the couple’s fourth anniversary) and maintaining a marathon schedule of other activities.

Dealing with cancer just became one more item on her to-do list — not a pleasant one, but one that she thought she would overcome.

“As we all know, this cancer has no idea what it’s up against,” her husband wrote in an online posting Oct. 31.

Subsequent postings tell the rest:

• Nov. 20 — “Quote of the week: ‘Get out of here; we’ve got sick people to treat.’(from our oncologist, with a big smile, after seeing how well Lizzie has responded to the second round of chemo). ... Progress continues to be very encouraging.”

• Dec. 3 — “Numbers that are good: 3 rounds of chemo now behind us; 2 days when Lizzie was able to go into work for a bit prior to this last round of chemo; 1 little girl named Harper whose laugh can heal our hearts.”

• Dec. 15 — ”Right now Lizzie needs to sit on our collective wheel for just a little while longer.”

• Jan. 23 — “Pesky indeed.”

• Feb. 28 — “Sometimes the quality of the day seems to depend upon test results.”

• March 31 — “This is the message I’ve always dreaded. And I’m sorry that it will come as a surprise to many of you. But Lizzie is gone.”

During her illness, she continued to keep up with her law classes (she is to receive a posthumous degree May 22), work as much as she could and stand by her friends. She may have been too sick to attend the baptism of Huffard’s baby, but that didn’t mean she would forget to send flowers. Prostic was not someone who forgot anything about the people she cared about.

“She had this attitude, which was very effective, to not take no for an answer,” Lundblad said in a telephone interview during which 11-month-old Harper could be heard cooing softly in the background.

“She constantly said throughout this whole thing that she wanted to see Harper for her first birthday,” he said.

Tamera Luzzatto, chief of staff to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) who knew Prostic from the Commerce Committee, said, “The job of a widow, someone who's physically left, is to make sure that everyone remembers the person who’s gone.”

Lundblad has done just that. He has built a website devoted to stage-four metastatic cancer. “Lizzie used to say, ‘Why can’t I find survivor stories?’ She didn’t necessarily want to read about them, but she wanted to know that they were there.”

The soon-to-be launched website — metacancer.org — will blend information, art and poetry in a way that emphasizes movement, a feature that epitomized his wife, the former dancer who was always on the move.

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