Even Congress needs a tune-up

David Woodall helps keep Congress running. 

Woodall, or “Woody,” as he’s known, has made sure Rep. Gary Ackerman’s (D-N.Y.) 1966 Plymouth Valiant stays purring up and down the Capitol Hill streets, winning dozens of compliments every week. He’s given Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. peace of mind by constantly maintaining the Wisconsin Republican’s 1999 Cadillac. And he’s seen to it that Rep. Charles Rangel’s (D-N.Y.) 2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser hasn’t fallen to pieces.

“You’re like their doctor,” said Woodall, sitting behind the counter of the Capitol Hill Exxon on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. “You get to know your customer and their car. And when you know the members like we do, you’re on a first-name basis. Plus, a vehicle is the second-biggest purchase most people make, next to their home, and it means a lot to a lot of people.”

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For many lawmakers, the only place they spend more time in than their office is their car, driving to fundraisers or speaking engagements, shuttling to and from the airport, or just popping out to get some milk and pick up their dry cleaning.

Located a half dozen blocks from the Capitol, the Capitol Hill Exxon gas station and mechanic shop is covered with framed photographs of lawmakers. Personalized notes and signatures appear on nearly every picture — a testament to the quality of work and service that has brought members of Congress back for more than four decades.

Ackerman has been taking his Plymouth to the Capitol Hill Exxon ever since he came to Congress in 1983.

“I know Woody very well,” Ackerman said. “You get great service, and they’re great mechanics over there. And they care about us. I go in there just to visit even if I don’t have mechanical work that needs to be done.”

One of the signed photographs on the wall is of a young Ray LaHood before he was secretary of Transportation, when he was a GOP congressman from Illinois. LaHood takes his 1998 Buick to see Woodall nearly every week.

“He’s a great guy — one of our best,” Woodall said of LaHood. “He’s here every Saturday morning now. We’re part of his routine. He pulls up, gets gas, goes and gets his dry cleaning, comes back with a case of water. He’s just a really nice, genuine guy.”

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But it’s not just lawmakers who take their cars into the Capitol Hill Exxon. Woodall said he’s on the phone multiple times each week with the parents of congressional staffers, who either don’t own their cars themselves or can’t pay for repairs.

“I talk to a lot of fathers out of state,” Woodall said, just before starting to work on a staffer’s Toyota Corolla. “Some 22-year-old girl with her parents’ car and she brings it in. So I have to call Dad and let him know what it needs. We take care of them.”

Woodall started working on cars when he was in high school in Alexandria. He would work on the 1955 and 1957 Chevrolets his friends owned until he got his first car, a 1967 Chevrolet Camaro.

For all the time he’s spent working on cars, Woodall also loves to drive them. It was only a matter of time before he started street racing, which would eventually take him around the country working as a professional drag racer. But there wasn’t a lot of steady money to be made in the drag racing circuit, so Woodall decided to settle down and work full-time as a mechanic.

In November of 1994, Woodall got introduced to the former owner of the Capitol Hill Exxon. He came in to interview on a Saturday — right after Republicans had taken control of the House — and started work the following Monday.

Over the years, Woodall has tried to treat every customer, whether a congressman or a bartender, with respect and honesty, building a loyal following as he walks them through their cars’ needs and the cost of repairs.

Despite the economic downturn, Woodall said business has steadily increased every month for the Capitol Hill Exxon. What has changed, he said, is the type of business they see.

“People are coming in to fix things that are broken instead of doing some of the more preventative maintenance,” he said. “They’re waiting longer in-between services. And when it breaks, it breaks. And it usually ends up being a bigger repair.”

Capitol Police are constantly breezing in to fill up their gas tanks, Woodall said, but nothing compares to Sept. 11, 2001, when he was the department’s main fuel source. While many other businesses closed that day, Woodall said he didn’t want to leave the police high and dry.

“We decided to stay because the Capitol Police needed gas, and this was the only place,” Woodall said. “To me there was no question. What else was I going to do?”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) raced into the gas station with his driver that day, too. He was in such a hurry, Woodall recalled, that after paying, he backed into the metal crash bar protecting the gas pumps.

Woodall has seen his fair share of odd behavior over the years. He once got a phone call asking if he could pick up a broken-down car in Georgetown that belonged to a young White House aide.

“It had been stashed in an alley,” he said. “So I went to pick it up. You couldn’t see the floor, it was such a mess. Beer bottles were on the seats. Gym clothes. His White House ID laying on the console.”

Then there was the time when Woodall needed to take off the dashboard to fix something in a New Jersey congressman’s car. When he opened the glove box to get to work, he found a loaded .357 handgun. He called the lawmaker, who was a former police officer.

“Is there anything in your car that you want to come and clean out before I get to work?’ I asked him,” Woodall recalled. “He said, ‘Naw … aw [crap], I’ll be there in a minute.’ ”

Though Ackerman’s 1966 Plymouth has needed no major work, the congressman said he doesn’t know what he would do without Woodall’s service. Over the years, the lawmaker has come to see the mechanic as part of his extended family.

“Woody is like an old family doctor,” Ackerman said. “He knows you and knows what ails you. He takes very good care of the car. And he knows my special relationship with my car.”