Brad Mascho wouldn’t normally have worried if his boss, Rep. Paul Gillmor, missed a morning staff meeting the day after returning from one month on the road in Ohio’s 5th District.
“It wasn’t anything that was that unusual, because when he would be gone for a month he would stop his mail, and one of the things he would always do when he got back was he would go through all the menial tasks, like mail and emptying the trash,” said Mascho, Gillmor’s communications director.
But the Ohio Republican had a Financial Services Committee hearing at 10:30 a.m. on the day of his return, so when chief of staff Mark Wellman couldn’t reach Gillmor by phone at 10:15, Mascho got worried.
“I knew that something was wrong,” he said.
The two aides began the drive to Gillmor’s townhouse. The 45-minute ride, which they had done many times, was usually filled with conversation and political banter. But that morning, they drove mostly in silence.
“I made the comment on the way over there that if we pull up and his car is gone, then everything’s fine, he’s running errands,” Mascho said. “But as we made the turn down his street, we saw his car in the driveway, and that’s when we both knew something was wrong.”
Gillmor, at 68, was one of six lawmakers on Capitol Hill to die last year, a startlingly high number for a Congress that averaged 2.7 deaths per two-year session over the past 20 years.
“This is far more (deaths) in one single session of congress than we've had in decades,” said Fred Beuttler, deputy historian for the House.
Besides Gillmor, Charles Norwood (R-Ga.), Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) and Rep. Julia Carson (D-Ind.) all passed away last year.
When a member dies, the House Clerk’s office takes control as a manager would. But with no one to vote, there is no need for the staff to continue its legislative work. Until special elections are held to replace the deceased member’s seat, the staff is left unto its own, toeing the line of future employment. What often are overlooked are the grief and emotional bankruptcy that go along with losing a boss.
“People don’t understand that there’s a personal relationship, too,” said Mary Springer, Davis’ legislative director.
“People would say, ‘Oh I’m sorry your boss died, so where are you going to work next?’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my gosh, how are you doing? You lost your mentor.’ And it’s not that they are not sensitive, it’s just that they don’t know. It’s such a unique situation and most people don’t think of the personal side.”
The House chaplain, Rev. Daniel Coughlin, pays a visit to a deceased member’s office upon learning of a lawmaker’s passing and offers grief services to the staff.
“If you’re in the personal staff, you know this person and they know you, and often you know their family and the children,” Coughlin said. “And often enough, because they’re such a public figure, public attention and empathy [are] expressed towards the family, and the staff are often overlooked.”
But it is the staff members who often see more of the lawmaker than his or her own family, so much so that they become an extended family.
“I got to know her family throughout the years, her two sons and her husband,” said Brent Robinson, Davis’ legislative correspondent, who had worked for her for more than five years. “I felt that I was part of her family. She treated her staff like they were a part of her extended family. She was more than a boss and a mentor, she was a friend and a motherly figure, always asking about my well-being and how my wife was doing.”
Mascho, too, said he felt like part of Gillmor’s family. Every year he spent two months back in the district, usually with Gillmor, driving his boss to every county in the district. The men grew so close that Mascho continues to communicate with Gillmor’s widow, Karen, every other day.
Those who work closely with staff often have the best understanding of what they could be going through. In the hours following Gillmor’s death, longtime beat reporters called Mascho to gather facts for the breaking story. But there was another sentiment that carried through in their conversations.
“When they heard this, they were just as shocked as everyone else,” Mascho said. “And I got just as many phone calls from reporters who were in tears because they had known him for 30 years, starting back to when he was at the Statehouse.”
When a member dies, the greatest support system for the staff is often found within it, which is why Gillmor’s entire D.C. staff came to pay respects to Davis’ office upon hearing the news. This is a part of Congress’ grief process.
But, as Coughlin stressed, people deal with grief in their own ways. While some withdraw, others throw themselves into constant preoccupation. No matter what the coping method, Davis’ chief of staff, Chris Connelly, wanted his co-workers to know that it was OK to begin looking for work.
“Your first thought is, ‘Oh my gosh this is terrible,’ ” said Whitney Stockett, Davis’ staff assistant. “Then your second thought is, ‘Oh my gosh I need a new job,’ and your third thought is, ‘That is such a terrible thought, you cannot think that.’ ”
And one by one, over subsequent weeks, staff members began to find new bosses. But as their new horizons emerged, staffers were faced with the hard task of sorting through a room full of memories.
“For those first few weeks, we didn’t have a lot to do, but it was important that we were together and we could console each other and start to figure out what to do with 19 years of congressional memorabilia,” Mascho said, who now works as Rep. Mike Turner’s (R-Ohio) communications director. “We knew we had to box all this stuff up. But it got trying at times, because everyday it was like you came into a museum for your best friend.”
Davis’ seat was filled by Rep. Rob WittmanRob WittmanVA Dems jockey for Kaine's seat Virginia governor contenders ready for battle House GOP defense policy bill conferees named MORE (R), who decided to keep many of the congresswoman’s staff for his own.
While all agreed that he has been very gracious and considerate of everyone’s feelings, the transition has not been without trying moments.
“One of the things that made it difficult was that she wore … a perfume [that] was very noticeable, so that whenever you came into her office, you knew she was here,” said Robinson, Davis’ legislative correspondent. “That was one of those things that just lingered, so even after she left, it still smelled like her.”
Often the funeral arrangements fall on staff members as well, as it did with Mascho, who had to coordinate with the Ohio Statehouse to accommodate 50 members of Congress in Gillmor’s tiny hometown of Old Fort.
Davis’ staff also played a key role in organizing the congresswoman’s funeral, sitting down with the House sergeant at arms and sorting through which military branch would handle it, the details surrounding a gun salute, a bugler and the honor guard. Davis’ husband had given the staff leeway to plan his wife’s funeral as she would have wanted it.
A lover of horses, Davis had stood up for the U.S. Capitol Police and fought against an initiative to move the mounted horse unit to the National Park Service. She was eventually defeated and the measure passed, but when her funeral procession rounded the corner, there stood three mounted U.S. Capitol Police officers in uniform, at full salute. They had taken the day off from work, transported their horses three hours to her hometown of Gloucester, Va., and paid their final respects to the one who had respected them.