Former Congressional Staffer Asks: Where Do We Go From Here?

Last Wednesday, I am sure I wasn’t alone in feeling heartbreak.

  • Thursday, January 14, 2021 3:54pm
  • Opinion
Lauri Hennessey

Lauri Hennessey

Thirty years ago, I worked as a Congressional staffer on Capitol Hill. And like many people who have passed through the halls of Congress since the creation of our nation, I was awed on a regular basis.

I walked to work from our apartment down the street and felt awe looking at the Capitol. I would watch debates on the Senate floor and feel awe. I looked at the Supreme Court at sunset, and the Lincoln Memorial in autumn, and felt the same awe. Our Congressional softball team even played our games on the Mall in front of the Washington Monument. Living and working in Washington, D.C. was a regular experience of emotion for me.

And last Wednesday, I am sure I wasn’t alone in feeling heartbreak.

I am sure there are plenty of you who were glued to your televisions, watching as people stormed the capitol, feeling shocked as you saw a man with his feet up on the desk of Nancy Pelosi. I am sure I wasn’t alone in crying as I watched a hangman’s noose erected next to the Capitol or horror as I watched the mob try to drag a photographer towards that noose. I cried as I watched the video of U.S. Rep. Pramilla Jayapal huddled in the House Gallery with her young staffer, imagining the fear they felt. All of the staffers hiding in their rooms, police being pushed to the ground.

All of these emotions were jumbled together — a sense of protection for the free press, for hardworking Congressional staffers and elected officials and others who were maliciously targeted by Trump, not just that day but for four years. I also felt the shame of my own privilege, knowing that my friends of color have so much more to struggle with when they watch this violence because it is rooted deeply in our country’s historic racism.

But mixed in with all of these emotions was how much I love the Capitol.

I love “The West Wing.” I love “The American President.” Pretty much any patriotic speech by Aaron Sorkin leaves me crying. I love “Hamilton.”

Living in our nation’s capital had been my dream my entire life. I was one of many thousands of young Congressional staffers who flocked there because they believed in public service. You worked long hours, you debated policy, and maybe you did a little good. But so many of the staffers I knew back then shared a love of country.

And of course, this chapter in history is not just full of hatred in Washington, D.C. Insurrectionists also attacked our own capital, storming the grounds of the Governor’s mansion in Olympia where Gov. Inslee and his wife were just inside.

What happened to us? How did we get here? How is there so much hate? And who is responsible? In my opinion, the largest share of this is the responsibility of Trump. But we also can blame Senate and House Republicans who said nothing or pushed back on this man. We also can blame Fox News and every shock radio host who incited mobs. We can blame the public for not being informed and bothering to learn the truth but just allowing themselves to be manipulated into hate.

But then there is also us. I have been okay over the years with institutions that have left out too many. We can blame ourselves for not standing up for what is right or for going along with others because we were simply exhausted. We can blame ourselves for not calling for change more forcefully and more often. Many Americans have never even voted. We can blame ourselves for so much.

None of this is simple. We are all grappling with feels of rage, anger, sorrow, shock, sadness, blame and so much more.

But mixed in with all of these feelings is a feeling of mourning. That building is the center of our democracy, the most recognizable building in America.

Yet people came by busloads, most of them not wearing masks in a time of great risk, with the intent to storm that building and dismantle a free and fair election. Many carried weapons and some carried zip ties. These intentions were not honorable.

It doesn’t matter if some of the insurrectionists didn’t break glass or hurt police officers. I saw videos of Moms with strollers and entire families. All of these Americans believed the election was fraudulent and everyone at the insurrection shares part of the blame.

And then there’s this memory: my first year on Capitol Hill, I worked for U.S. Rep. John Miller from Seattle. We were in a cab one day, coming back from an event. I looked at the Capitol in silhouette against the sky. I told John that it was amazing to me and always gave me a chill. Then I looked at him in chagrin and said I probably sounded naïve saying that.

I vividly recall John said, “Lauri, when the day comes that you don’t look at our Capitol and feel that way, you have been here too long.”

What happened to those people who caravanned to Washington last week? When did they stop looking at the building as their house, a house worth protecting, a house worth loving? When did they stop feeling awe?

And where do we go from here?

A 20-year Vashon resident, Lauri Hennessey is the CEO of League of Education Voters.

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