Sugar and spice: Which Hill offices are really nice — Southern or Northern?

Step into Rep. Henry Brown Jr.’s (R-S.C.) office and you may be offered homemade peach ice cream, served up with a sweet Southern accent. The M&Ms in Rep. Scott Garrett’s (R-N.J.) office might increase your blood sugar level, but being greeted with a blank stare might inspire less sugar than spice.

It all begs the question: Which offices are more hospitable — those of Northern or Southern members of Congress?
Visitors often feel at home in Southern offices because they are likely to be offered refreshments and put at ease with informal conversation, experts and staffers said.

Brown said his mother, Lougine, is a master in the art of Southern hospitality. She came to Washington for his swearing-in and to tour the White House. She turned to him and asked where the president was. Brown explained that the new president hadn’t yet been inaugurated. “She said, ‘You mean to tell me that we came all this way and he’s not going to say hello?’” Brown recalled. “She expected him to greet her. She epitomized what Southern America is all about.”

A University of Georgia expert on Southern politics and former Hill staffer, Charles Bullock said the offices of Southern members make visitors feel more welcome than do those of Northerners.

“When you went into the office of a Southern member you would usually be offered something, and a Northern office — they might not even acknowledge that you’re there,” Bullock said.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) is downright proud of his Southern roots and greets everyone he passes on the street. “My staff is friendly because the South is,” he said. A visit to Lewis’s offices promises a plethora of Coca-Cola products and Georgia peanuts.

“It appears that Southern offices are more hospitable because they offer more beverages and snacks,” an executive assistant for Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), Michael Larosa, said. Bean doesn’t offer snacks.

Southern members of Congress waste no time in proclaiming the virtues of their region’s charm. Their Northern colleagues agree, but forays into congressional offices and phone calls to several offices show that congressional staffers don’t necessarily reflect their leadership.

A staffer for Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) was quick to pull the earbuds from his ears and say, “Hello, how are you? How can I help you?” Although he was polite, he had only water to offer.

A group of high school freshman boys ventured into Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) office to gather information for a school report on Iraq and Iran. Ian Thompson, 15, said the staff was friendly. “They said the senator wasn’t around, but printed out this bill for us. They were pretty cool,” he said.

The most common telephone greeting was, “Hello, Mr. ____’s office. How may I help you?” It’s difficult to go wrong with that.

A call to Rep. Jim Marshall’s (D-Ga.) office elicits an informal, “Hang on a second,” minus an accent. By contrast, Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) staffer’s greeting is not to be missed. “May I help you?” the whispery woman with the Southern accent said on the other end.

A call to Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s (R-N.J.) office was answered politely, but was flat and uninspired. A very polite staffer of Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) offered a “Good afternoon, Senator Schumer’s office,” along with an accent of a different stripe — most likely a New York variety.

A professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, David King said visitors to congressional offices might perceive a difference in politeness when members and their staffs have Southern accents.

“You can have a Southern representative say he holds his colleges in minimal regard and it will sound like poetry, and someone from the Bronx will say it and it will sound like sandpaper,” King said.

Ed Moreland, a New York political strategist and vice president of government relations at the American Motorcyclist Association, said the offices of Southern members are friendlier.

“The accent is the most outward cue of friendliness, but more than the accent, it’s the actions and words behind the accent that matter,” he said.

A senior Republican staffer who has worked for both Northern and Southern members agreed that Southern offices are warmer. He emphasized regional differences in communication styles.

“They [Southerners] tend to like to put you at ease and get to know you before they get into the heart of whatever the matter may be,” he said. “Northern offices are more about what’s your issue, what’s your problem and let’s solve it.”

Garrett believes there is a particular charm to Southerners, although it doesn’t necessarily make them nicer. “Our offices get a pretty good rating when people come in. Maybe it’s more of a Jersey style — being a little more outgoing and conversant … the Southern [style] may just be a little more laid-back,” he said.

Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said Southern members are “a little less direct and maybe less to the point,” noting his staff comes from various regions of the country — a common feature in many Capitol Hill offices. A visit to Cohen’s office includes a polite greeting from staff and some yapping from Jackie O, Cohen’s 6-month-old poodle-schnauzer mix.

Randy Ford, Rep. John Tanner’s (D-Tenn.) press secretary, doesn’t believe there is a difference between Northern and Southern offices. “It just depends,” he said. “It’s really office to office.”

Bill Vickery, a political consultant based in Arkansas, said there are differences in politeness of members and their staffs, but agreed it often varies according to the particular member’s style.

“You have hard-hitting members that are from the South and then some easier-going members from the North. You also have the opposite of both,” Vickery said.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) didn’t pretend to be neutral, but was diplomatic. “Southern hospitality is something that our region is known for, but I don’t know any offices that aren’t nice,” he said. “We aim to please.”