I remembered her immediately – that dressed to kill power broker in her four-inch stilettos as she stood out in a crowd of men in indistinguishable black, blue, and grey suits. Her walk was more like a dance and she appeared skilled at getting every eye to turn her way. Her image popped up in my head the moment I got the email – an invitation to the swearing-in for my friend and representative-elect, Denver Riggleman of Virginia’s fifth district.
I mulled over the idea of taking the metro into D.C. so I could stand in his Longworth office with other friends, family, and constituents, as we fight the swarms of lobbyists that would ascend from every corner, alley, and crevasse of the swamp – all for a five-second opportunity to shake hands, exchange smiles, and take a selfie we can post all over social media. Something in my gut tells me to mail in my best wishes and go about my daily errands instead of making the venture north.
There is something about Washington post-election when a new class of congressmen and senators show up, expecting to make their district proud and maybe earn an admirable national profile for something they can throw on a plaque or their memoirs. The gooey optimism from die-hard supporters that their guy or gal is going to change up Washington is cute in a childlike way, but just shows the ignorance of the American populace, unaware of the realpolitik. This freshmen class may look different from classes prior, they may appear on the outside different even from each other, but beneath the manicured surface and show they all put on, they share many of the same vices and grand aspirations.
In 2011 I was with a group from the Civil Air Patrol lobbying representatives to consider issuing Congressional Gold Medals to pilots who served in WWII. I was still in high school, awestruck by the most powerful city in the free world and the men and woman who came here day to day to work for powers unseen by the regular citizen. I had a briefcase with all our documents and flyers I mistakenly put right in front of the door for the Congressman from the fifth district of Virginia. I got on a knee to tie my shoelace which had gone undone from running from office to office, trying to make each appointment right on time so some cancer research group or big oil rep didn’t snag our place. Before I knew it the door opened and as I looked up I was met with a knee to the face.
“Dammit Martinez” I heard one of the senior cadets say as I was dazed for a moment, having just caught myself from falling flat on my ass. “Look what you made the congressman do! Sir, we apologize” he said as I looked up and saw Congressman Robert Hurt. I was mesmerized, I had never seen a real congressman before, and both of us being Republicans didn’t hurt either.
“No harm done, you alright son?” Hurt asked me with a bright, white smile that looked like he just walked out of the dentist’s office. I just shook my head, not wanting to say something stupid. We walked in a moment later; the Civil Air Patrol Major who was with us did most of the talking since the cadets’ job was just to be there and look adorable in our uniforms. The meeting with the congressman was only about a minute, though we were scheduled for fifteen minutes. Long story short and not to misconstrue anything – he told us flat out nothing was going to come out of this meeting and that that was the same thing he was telling everyone due to “budgetary reasons.” We sat in silence listening while he talked about airplanes he liked for the rest of our time in his office. He perked up at the end to say it was time for a photo. We stood up, posed, smiled, and went on our way. Hurt’s time in Congress was nothing to gawk at, and I still often wondered what would have happened if we were from some corporation or big special interest group that was there to offer him something instead of asking for something. That meeting set the tone for the rest of the day.
Years go by, hairs go grey and scars are accrued in the battlefields of campaigns from city council to US Senate. My once sun-shiny view of politics is dampened with the defeat of Mitt Romney and the inability of Congressional Republicans to keep their promises. My youthful smile, like that of so many people that travel in these circles, starts to fade. One of my proudest moments is getting to see Thomas Garrett Jr., whose campaign I served on in 2016, succeed in Hurt’s place, taking a rough and tumble conservative agenda from the heart of rural Virginia to D.C. I went with my girlfriend to Garrett’s swearing-in with his freshman class of legislators. Trump is President, Republicans control the federal government and most of the states’ governments – all seems good in the world. We sit down on a couch in his small office at the far end of the building. It had become clear he hadn’t won the straw pull for offices. The ceremony is in an hour and we arrived just as the office had opened, but the line of lobbyists was out the door. Garrett stands in front of the desk to his office as each lobbyist smiles, shakes his hand, and passes a business card to his chief of staff.
“Call me when you need me and I’ll always pick up” each of them say in a different way or tune as they smile, turn around, and go to the next office. Garrett had to go back to his office to grab something, so the line waits patiently for his return. It was very apparent these folks had all the time in the world and they weren’t going anywhere. Washington is their home, these Congressmen are just visiting it. That is when she walks in, with a leopard print skirt just flowing inches above her knees. Those black stilettos control the room, you could here a pin drop. She cuts to the front of the line, looks at me as I’m sitting down and flashes me a smile with her rouge lipstick.
“Is Congressman Garrett in?” she asks in a raspy smokey voice that reminds me of actress Emma Stone. I see on her hip a lanyard with a card for some aerospace corporation with her name and face on it, I know immediately she’s a lobbyist. Someone else butts in to tell her that he is in his office past the secretary’s desk. She smiles, looks at the rest of the long line leading out of the room, and just walks directly in where a stunned Garrett is met with this woman who will wait for no line. No one complains. I guess all lobbyists are equal but some are more equal than others. I later find out there is a hierarchy, and if the others in line wanted to keep their jobs they’d let her through.
She walks out smiling at us all and proceeds to the next representative’s next door. I walk out after she does and I hear the representative next door say to the line that he’s done speaking. He notices her as soon as she walks in and she greets him with a kiss on the cheek and a firm hug. Old friends? Who knows, but the mind comes to conclusions of its own. The group from Garrett’s office walks down the hallway to a larger room with coffee and food for the viewing, and it becomes hard not to notice the lines of endless lobbyists coming out of each office. They all wait patiently, they all know at the end of the day, they are the most important people in this building – everyone else just passes through.
Nothing really changes, deals are cut, promises are sacrificed regardless of party control or special interests. The various industrial complexes always fair well regardless as to who is in power. After one-term Garrett grows sick of it all, and with his personal life becoming collateral damage, he sacrifices his job in Washington to save his soul and that of his family’s. “I joke that I have never worked so hard to accomplish so little,” Garrett says to a TV crew sometime before bowing out of a re-election bid, discussing how corrupt and ineffective the political process has become. “The system isn’t broken, there are good people here, the system has been poisoned.”
For visitors to D.C. tomorrow, look out for the woman in stilettos who owns her walk and the control of a room, because her and people like her are ultimately the ones who run the circus, and they are friends with everyone you love and everyone you hate. New Congress, sure, but also the same people who really run the system whose names you’ll never know. I won’t be there. I’ll be doing something useful with my time, but be assured, they will be there, they will always be there.