It could be raining outside, you forgot your umbrella, the Metro was delayed, you’re late for a meeting and there’s a long line of people waiting to get into the southeast doors of the Cannon House Office Building, but none of that could prevent your mood from becoming “fantastic.”
At least, not if now-retired U.S. Capitol Police Officer Bill Cleveland had anything to say about it.
“I think [the word fantastic] sums up a lot of things that puts people in the right mood,” said Cleveland, who is known to some Hillites as “Officer Fantastic” or “Mr. Fantastic.” “I’ve had some people come to my door and say, ‘You can’t possibly feel fantastic every day,’ and I say, ‘Those days I don’t feel fantastic, I don’t come to work!’”
But when he was at work, he apparently did approach every morning with the same good attitude, according to Capitol Police Officer Rodney Dabney.
“It could be a Monday morning and it’s still ‘fantastic,’” Dabney said. Cleveland claims he’s tried to get Dabney hooked on his catchphrase, but Dabney said he just might have to choose his own word.
Since 1996, Cleveland has manned his post at Cannon’s First and C streets Southeast entrance, and in his 30 years with the Capitol Police, it was by far his favorite position.
“The southeast door is a very good door,” Cleveland said on Tuesday, his last day in uniform. “Just meeting the people was the best part. A lot of good people, both Democrats and Republicans.”
And those good people surely will miss Cleveland’s positive attitude and jovial greetings.
“He can put a smile on everyone’s face,” said Sean Spicer, communications director of the House Budget Committee. “It’s a very positive thing to have somebody that takes interest in the people coming in — he takes his time whether it’s a Member of Congress or a first-time visitor to the Capitol.”
For new visitors to the Hill, Cleveland said it’s important to give them the information they need for them to get where they’re going. Although, he remembers a time when visitors were able to go a lot more places.
“The Hill has changed very significantly,” Cleveland said as he thought back to how things used to be for visitors when he first went on the day shift about 20 years ago. “They used to walk right up the steps of the Capitol. There have been significant changes from having a totally open campus to where we’re almost blocking off Independence Avenue.”
But some of the changes, such as putting gates around the Capitol and the idea to build the Capitol Visitor Center, Cleveland had a hand in while he was part of the physical security team for about 14 years. He then took his place at the door in the Cannon Building and took joy in the people coming and going all the time.
“He’s very personal about his door,” Spicer said of Cleveland. “He’s very possessive that everybody that comes through that door is treated with respect. It’s not just a job for him, it’s something he’s really personal about.”
That statement was made clear watching Cleveland at work on Tuesday.
“I’m so excited for you,” said Sue Vernalis, Capitol Hill liaison for the Christian Embassy ministry, once she heard of Cleveland’s retirement. “I wish I could shake your hand but it’s full of popcorn grease.”
With a big smile, Cleveland extended his hand to Vernalis, popcorn grease and all. Many others filtering through the southeast door expressed similar sentiments to Cleveland, wishing him well in his next endeavors.
Now that his childhood dream of being a police officer has been fulfilled, Cleveland is moving on to chase his most current aspiration: to be chosen as the city of Alexandria’s sheriff in next November’s election.
“There’s no one who knows Alexandria better than Bill,” said Spicer, who also lives in the city. “If you looked at the qualifications on paper, there’s no one better for the job.”
Professing his love for both politics and working with people, Cleveland looks forward to spending the next year getting back out into the community.
“I know it’s not going to be easy because Republicans are outnumbered in the city of Alexandria 6-to-1, but I’m going to work hard to prove to people that I should be the sheriff of Alexandria,” Cleveland said.
In last year’s mayoral election, Cleveland and then-fellow City Councilman William Euille were the first two black candidates running for the office. Euille bested Cleveland in the race.
“We had two very qualified folks going head-to-head,” Spicer said of the election. “It wasn’t, ‘Bill Cleveland isn’t good enough,’ it was, ‘Gosh, we actually have to pick between the two.’”
However, not becoming mayor allowed Cleveland to finish out his 30-year stint with the Capitol Police, and he has no regrets about that.
“The Capitol Police is more of an ambassadorship for people on the Hill,” Cleveland said. “It’s for the protection of the Members of Congress and for the people who are there — that’s the most important aspect.”
While Cleveland said he expected to leave the force “quietly,” co-workers and those who have gotten to know him over the years did not let him slip away so easily. The entire force gathered as Cleveland received his retirement badge, which is unusual as normally only the respective division — House, Senate or Capitol — is present.
“They really made sure Bill knew how much we appreciated him,” Spicer said.
Also, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose committee oversees the Capitol Police, presented Cleveland with a proclamation honoring him and his years of service while he was hard at work on Tuesday.
“I don’t want to take you away from your job,” Ney said as he stepped back to let Cleveland work.
“No, I have a partner,” Cleveland joked, as he pointed to Dabney, who also was on duty.
“You must’ve started when you were awfully young,” Ney said as he congratulated Cleveland on his retirement. Cleveland gleefully replied, “26!”
While Cleveland expected to keep a “low profile” with his retirement, he said it was overwhelming and heartening to know so many people were going to miss him.
“It’s the people that make Capitol Hill,” Cleveland said. “The Hill is just one big happy knit family. It takes you a while to get in, but once you’re in, people will do almost anything for you.”