On Tuesday, I texted my Aunt Kay to see if she had seen the news that pioneering former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder had died. Pat was a national figure during her time in Washington and so word of her passing on Monday is making national news. Kay and my Uncle Clem lived in Denver and Arvada for several decades. My cousins all grew up there in the suburbs and were in high school around the time of Columbine. Pat was not their representative, as she represented the urban core of Denver.
First elected to the House in 1972, Pat Schroeder was the first woman ever elected to Congress from Colorado. At just 32, she was the third youngest woman ever elected to the House. She also became the first woman to ever serve on the House Armed Services Committee. She was an initial member of the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families that formed in 1983, and geared a lot of her work in Congress towards work and family issues like childcare. In fact, she was one of the major players behind the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. She also famously dubbed President Reagan the “Teflon President” because no policy action or scandal could seem to stick to him as he remained popular.
In 1991, Kay and Clem set me up with an internship with Pat for the summer. At least that’s what I had assumed for the last 32 years until Kay told me through our texts that Uncle Clem was the real mastermind behind that opportunity. My aunt reminded me that when Clem was head of the big Ralston Purina Plant downtown, Pat would ask if she could come around during district visits to shake hands with the workers on the assembly lines. Uncle Clem apparently always obliged and developed an unusual friendship with Pat. I say unusual because Kay and Clem are arch-conservatives, and Pat was always known as being one of the more liberal members of congress in her 24 years there. But, knowing that their nephew was a big liberal (the term “progressive” hadn’t really become a thing yet back then), they were kind enough to hook me up with Pat’s office.
I remember the staff environment being like a tight-knit family. Pat had several long-term staffers who were loyal to her and her work, including a rather surly Chief of Staff named Dan. I think he was nicer to staff, but the man was cold and never smiled. He had a big beard but was rather diminutive himself. Anyway, it’s like my fourth or fifth day on this internship, which lasted from about mid-May of 1991 to early that August, when I’m answering the phones and Pat herself calls in asking for Dan. I say hello, and think I’ve put her on hold. Well, apparently I had not. She calls back in, I again answer, and I quickly apologize before thinking I’ve put her on hold again. Nope. I had twice hung up on Pat Schroeder. Next thing I know, Dan comes storming out of his office to yell at me and goes through the motions of showing me how simple and easy to use the phone system is, yelling out directions the whole time. I was completely humiliated and felt horrible. Keep in mind the interns and legislative assistants worked in a kind of cubicle culture, but it was definitely an open floor and everybody heard the whole thing. And I was still a ways from setting a real first impression among the legislative staff. But thankfully I worked well with the Legislative Assistants I spent the summer with, whose names I still remember being Doug Nelson, David Vershure, and Lisa Pinto. I was assigned to a fourth staffer, Lily, but for the life of me I can’t remember her last name. I later learned that Dan was so mad about my hanging up on Pat that he had considered relegating me to the Armed Services Committee offices, but thankfully that didn’t happen and I enjoyed the summer in Pat’s main office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
I talked to several interesting people as I staffed the phones that summer. I remember speaking with Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, about some weapons system he was calling Pat to promote for the Navy. I talked to journalist Eleanor Clift, who, when I answered I remember I couldn’t contain my excitement about it speaking to, for which she laughed and said, “I’m not so jaded yet that that’s still very nice to hear,” or something to that effect. And there was this older guy Bob, from Las Vegas, who called in every time he saw Pat on TV to tell us just how terrific she was on whatever program he had just seen. He loved Pat like she was his own daughter and he was always in a good mood.
Oh, and I did eventually see Dan smile. In fact, one day he came back to the interns’ pen towards the end of my time there to hand me a letter back I had written for Pat. I think it was some sternly worded response to the dairy lobby. He showed me the changes he wanted to be made, actually complimented my draft, and then launched into a story that to this day I can’t remember because I likely heard little of it. I was so shocked that Dan was being nice to me that I couldn’t possibly digest anything he was actually saying!
I remember feeling like I grew closest to staffer Doug Nelson, who even invited me to play in the Congressional Staffer’s summer softball league. Almost every summer day in Washington, you could find collections of congressional staff on fields all over the Washington Mall and elsewhere playing softball and enjoying some drinks. Some took it seriously, while others were just there for the fun. I remember Doug naming our team the Rocky Mountain Oysters, and only later learning that they were fried bulls’ testicles that people actually ate in restaurants.
Of course, as interns, we did more than answer phones. We opened a ton of constituent mail and counted postcards like votes every time an interest group had their members send in hundreds of pre-written postal messages advocating for this or that. The fun moments were when we were asked to make a “Hill run,” where we took a trip on behalf of a staff member to personally deliver something to someone in the actual U.S. capitol building. This generally involved the joys of taking the underground train members of congress and staff use to get from the House or Senate to Capitol Hill. Invariably, it was always fun to see the more famous members of the House or Senate down there. I remember one time seeing Phyllis Schlafly and a small huddle of conservative women and shooting her a dirty look.
I established a comfortable routine day-to-day. I was living with my college friend Craig Lieberman that summer at a house in Falls Church, Virginia. We rented two rooms from this really cheesy guy named Tom who worked in finance and wore suspenders. Thankfully, he wasn’t around much. I can’t remember where Craig worked that summer, but he and I would leave the house early every morning and walk about 15 minutes to the Ballston Metro stop on the Orange Line. I remember I would read on my way into Pat’s office each morning. I became quite enamored with Roll Call, a very insider Capitol Hill newspaper that got into the nuts and bolts of legislative detail and how a particular member’s bills were making their way through Congress. You could learn a lot by reading Roll Call. And I would read whatever Congressional Quarterly I could get my hands on as well.
I remember having a very active social life with the other interns I shared Pat’s office with that summer, and very much regret not staying in touch with any of them. Recently I found a few of them on Twitter and a few of them have amassed quite a following in their various careers. But we would do what interns do, which was going to as many free receptions and fundraisers as we could to take advantage of food and drink. I remember one time there was a daytime reception that then Congressmember Rick Santorum was having for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had just won the Stanley Cup that June and were I think in town in part to visit President Bush at the White House.
The only time I remember talking with Pat herself, though I know we spoke one or two other times (and I got better at talking with her by phone), I remember taking the initiative to tell her about something awful a Republican Representative named Henry Hyde had said on the House floor. Henry Hyde was most famous for the Hyde Amendment, which as part of annual budgeting put restrictions on Medicaid funding so it couldn’t be used on abortion treatment. Anyway, Pat hears my news and just yells, “He said whaaaaaat?! Oh, that guy is a real turkey.”
I ended my internship in early August that summer because I wanted to at least return home for a couple of weeks with my parents before having to return to school, and because one of the things on the itinerary was a family trip to Kauai. But the internship did come with a little bit of academic work as well. I recall telling my political science professor, John Weiland, that spring semester that I had secured the internship with Pat for the summer, and he designed a summer curriculum of reading and writing for me to do to earn credit for a full course through the internship. That internship helped me graduate with a few credits to spare.
I did try and reconnect with the Pat Schroeder staff a couple of years later for the Clinton Inaugural in January of 1993. In fact, I reached out to them specifically to see if they could hook me and my buddy Derek up with any access to parties or events in D.C., as we were determined to drive up from the University of Richmond to attend. Well, we were only able to get into Pat’s private reception, but I remember it all feeling pretty special.
I’ll never forget the summer of 1991 in D.C. It helped me fall even further in love with politics and government than I already was and shot me forward into a life that remained pretty political until I left that all behind to found Westside Voice.
America truly lost a giant this week in Pat Schroeder. She was a real trailblazer. I consider myself very lucky to have shared a summer with her and her team.