Washington, D.C., is a town that appreciates a good from-the-ground-up story.
People are often quick to point out that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) interned together for a Maryland Senator in the 1960s. It was noted during the January swearing-in ceremony of Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) that he once was a staffer for the Senator he was appointed to replace — Sen. Trent Lott (R). And there are nearly a dozen former House pages turned Members, including Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.).
The Senate parking lots, which employ about 30 attendants at any given time, also have been a breeding ground for notable professionals. While none have ascended from the lots to the legislative body, parking lot alumni include high-profile lobbyists, a local museum curator, and — perhaps most famous of all — White House counsel Ed Gillespie.
“A lot of young people come to this town and take whatever job they can get,” former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said. Gillespie worked for Armey from 1985 to 1996.
When Armey first met Gillespie in the 1980s, the New Jersey native was a Catholic University senior. The young Gillespie was an energetic parking lot attendant, directing traffic behind the Dirksen Senate Office Building with the same focus he now brings to the West Wing, Armey said.
“I still point it out to people as the Eddie Gillespie parking lot, and I tell that story to a lot of young people,” Armey said, adding in a quick jab, “He probably only parked Lincolns and Cadillacs instead of Fords and Chevys. He wanted to go straight to the top.”
Catholic University was once a feeder school for the Senate parking lots, which are located just three Metro stops from the school’s campus and formerly had a policy of hiring students for the coveted attendant positions. The job was prime for young people, promising few responsibilities and a decent paycheck that was just enough for beer “and a little Chinese food now and then,” remembers Joe Stanton, who worked a few shifts in the parking lots during his senior year at Catholic in 1982.
Stanton since has worked his way up to top lobbyist at the National Association of Home Builders, but said he has not forgotten his roots in the Senate parking lot, where he worked alongside Gillespie.
[IMGCAP(1)]“It wasn’t rocket science, obviously, but you gained good people skills. It’s all what you use today,” Stanton explained. “Everyone coming in from every walk of life, from the North and the South, the East Coast and the West Coast, and you had to talk with everyone, just like in the lobbying world.”
The Senate has five parking lots that hold a total of 6,000 cars belonging to everyone from maintenance staff to chiefs of staff. Mike Brown, the Senate’s parking, transportation and fleet manager, said lot attendants, who must know how to drive a manual transmission, provide “the basic customer service you’d get anywhere.” The team, uniformed in red polo shirts and black pants, regularly checks cars for flat tires and cracked taillights. Shifts are staggered from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., and the staffers stationed at each of the five lots can find shade and shelter in the attendant booths, the parking lot’s version of a caddy shack, with empty Mountain Dew bottles and dog-eared magazines.
“It was a pretty easy job. There’s not a lot of people trying to crash the parking lots,” National Building Museum curator Chrysanthe Broikos remembers.
Broikos was paid $7.50 an hour during her six-month parking stint in 1988 and 1989. Ticking off the names of notable alumni who used to punch in for a shift, Broikos did not seem surprised at the parking lot’s farm team of accomplished professionals.
“People who come to Washington have aspirations to be somebody. It stands that a few would rise,” she said.
Former attendant Kary Antholis did not break into politics like some of his former colleagues, but he nevertheless found the work experience life-changing — he met his wife, Karen Coburn, on the job. The New Jersey native and current executive with HBO was a Georgetown law school student in 1987 when he worked at the Senate parking lot alongside his future wife, an undergraduate at Catholic. Antholis’ parking lot boss nudged him to ask Coburn out, and they were married in 1992. The parents of two were in Washington on business the day of their 16th wedding anniversary this year, and they marked the occasion with a cab ride to the parking lot where it all began in 1987.
Now based in Los Angeles, Antholis was part of the HBO team that put together the recently released “John Adams” film series. He said the project stirred up memories of his days on Capitol Hill, when he was part of “the “lower levels of the machine of government that kept the clocks going on time.”
Though it is not often that he draws on his parking lot experience for his work at HBO, Antholis, like many of his former colleagues, said the job left an impression.
“I’ve worked on several movies and miniseries that have related to American government. Being around the day-to-day workings of government demystified the way government works,” Antholis said.