‘A fun life,’ (and often funny)

An elderly woman regularly wanders into a South Carolina lawmaker’s office, mumbles to herself, looks around and grabs a few business cards before leaving.

“I thought she was homeless,” the office’s staff assistant, who has learned to ignore the interloper, said. “She’s probably mental.”

Staff assistants on Capitol Hill deal with all kinds. They answer hundreds of phone calls a day, run errands for coworkers, open letters, give tours, guard the office, monitor interns and work long hours. Yet they’re usually paid less than $30,000 a year.

They have countless stories about constituents and others who call regularly. Most staff assistants say they are paying their dues, more or less patiently awaiting a promotion.

Generally, answering phone calls seems to be a least-favorite chore. Assistants say they find themselves constantly lying about their coworkers’ whereabouts and when they are due back in the office. Many of them know the names of constituents who repeatedly dial in.

“Sometimes you want to pull your hair out,” a staff assistant to a lawmaker from Illinois said. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

The aide said the office gets about 10 to 25 off-the-wall calls a day. He’s the only one at the door and has to tell people that the congressman and other staffers are in meetings all day. His boss also receives bizarre letters.

One came from a man who believes his phones are tapped because he wants to marry a mail-order bride, the aide said.
“I cannot tolerate these people controlling my life,” the man wrote in one letter, which came with a photo of the conspiracy theorist with an eyebrow raised.

The aide said that the man often calls to scream, “When’s my appointment?”

After a while, staffers recognize such voices.

“After eight to 10 months of being screamed at on a daily basis, you get to know their voices,” the aide to a high-ranking Democrat said. “They are making the same argument and you can’t say anything.”

The staffer has been promoted, and would prefer to forget his days as the “office tetherball.”

“I don’t really want to recall it,” the three-year staff assistant said. “I’ve blocked so much of it out.”

He struggled to get the job, he said, but after six months of monitoring the door, dealing with people from the LaRouche political action committee, talking to “fairly irrational people” and “boxing people out” of the office, he said he was terrified that he might be a staff assistant forever.

“I thought, ‘I could be stuck in this thing!’” he said. “You’re terrified that you’re going to be fetching water and talking to crazies [forever].”

Many staff assistants agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity out of fear that they would be fired for divulging information about the difficulties of their job.

One aide in a California lawmaker’s office is the first line of defense.

She said one woman calls several times a week.

“She watches ‘The Ed Schultz Show’ and will be all up in a twitch about it if you haven’t heard about [the specific issue she’s referring to.]” the aide said. “She insults your intelligence.”

The aide said others will talk for 30 minutes: “They tell you what they ate for breakfast last Tuesday or about their mother in a nursing home.”

The staff assistant to a South Carolina lawmaker said she routinely places the caller on speakerphone and continues doing her work while they banter on about the issues or their life.

“They just want to talk,” she said. “Interns talk back, but it just makes the conversation twice as long.”

A man who purports to be the leader of an organization known as “Stargate” — presumably named after the 1994 feature film and the TV series it spawned — routinely calls the office and says the world is going to “blow up and there will be an alternate universe.”

Sometimes the calls take a turn for the worse. Once she was actually scared of a caller.

One man, who said that his father was murdered in South Carolina and that his stepmother was trying to steal all of his father’s money, “seemed really concerned on the phone. He said everyone was hanging up on him.”

The staffer listened for a while and eventually set him up with the district office. It didn’t end there.

“He called back a week later and kept asking for me,” she said. “He kept calling. He started screaming. He called that morning and afternoon. We would see his number and hang up immediately.

“He said he was recording our conversation and he was going to write a story about it and ruin the congressman’s career,” said the staffer, who called the Capitol Police about the incident, after which the man stopped calling. She’s still uneasy about the episode, since the caller knows her name and where she works.

A staff assistant in Rep. Corrine Brown’s (D-Fla.) office, Joseph Bastian, said he hasn’t had any particularly strange experiences, but the office has a regular caller.

“We have a resident constituent that calls multiple times a day. Everyone in our delegation knows her,” Bastian said. “We listen. We think she’s in a home or something. Because I answer phones, she knows my name. She really does know what’s going on, but she just gets a little erratic.”

It’s all in a day’s work, Bastian said.

“I love my job. I’m from the district. When people call, I have a particular interest.”

Other staff assistants say that they have a lot to deal with, and many times they are talking to people who are not from their boss’s district.

“There’s a gentleman that calls all of the Illinois offices and complains about the other [Illinois] offices,” the Illinois staff assistant said. “It’s a fun life.”