Capitol Hill staff members serve our country and need our support
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Capitol Hill staff members serve our country and need our support

January 15, 2021

A wall in my home displays mementos from my time working on Capitol Hill and on the White House staff. They are souvenirs familiar to those of us who have had the privilege of serving at the center of government: staffers photographed on the Capitol steps; personal notes from the Members I served; redlines of the laws that I helped draft; a picture of my family in the Oval Office.

Among the memorabilia is a certificate signed by then-President George W. Bush.  It says, “In recognition of distinguished service on September 11, 2001.”

I can relate to the fear, shock, anger and uncertainty felt by so many congressional staffers following last week’s tragic siege of the Capitol because that’s how I felt after the 9/11 attack.

What I cannot relate to – and what breaks my heart – is that many of these staffers who were terrorized and traumatized by the deadly insurrection on Jan. 6 feel alone, unsupported and unprotected.

On 9/11, I was working in the White House complex after leaving a Capitol Hill job I loved and a senator I respected. The senator was not happy to see me leave, but he gave me his blessing because I was continuing in public service.

I had seen shocking and tragic assaults on our government – including the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 and the killing of two Capitol Police officers at an entrance to the Capitol building in 1998 – but I never felt that government service would make me a target.  Until that morning.

I was afraid for myself and my family. Were more attacks coming?

But there was another thought in my head.  Our country is under attack. If I don’t show up at our time of greatest need, how can I expect anyone else to?

So on Sept. 12, I showed up. And I showed up the day after, and the day after that. It was made easier by leaders who showed up too. They gave public servants in all branches of government a clear mandate – protect the American people and our democratic institutions – and they put aside partisan differences to unite our country, lead our national healing and demonstrate resolve in the face of a vicious enemy.

I see and hear something very different today. Public servants on Capitol Hill and elsewhere do not have the benefit of a strong and unifying message to support them. Far from promoting national unity, many elected leaders have tolerated, enabled and even encouraged an assault on our government and the people who serve, perpetrated by our fellow countrymen. I wonder if these leaders realize the heavy burden this has placed on their own staffs, and in particular staffers of color who are often the targets of anger and vitriol as a result of their identities. And I wonder what that says about their values, and their fitness to lead the incredibly diverse, talented and committed group of people who work for the United States Congress.  

In the months after 9/11, I was honored to meet the families of the heroes of Flight 93, individuals who sacrificed their lives to prevent one of the hijacked planes from reaching the White House or the Capitol. Near the end of that emotional and humbling visit, the mother of one of the Flight 93 passengers turned to the assembled White House staff and said, “If they died trying to save you, they would be so pleased to see what beautiful people you are.”

Capitol Hill staffers, you are beautiful people.  You are heroes for showing up. Thank you for your distinguished service.

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