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Reputation Can Be Tough to Reverse; Just Ask Sheila Jackson Lee

Lee, second from right, came to the defense of an aide. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Lee, second from right, came to the defense of an aide. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The latest dust-up centered on Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has several hallmarks of her form — behaving in ways the vast majority of members of Congress intuitively know to avoid.  

She got up in somebody’s business in a very public place . She sought to dominate a situation where her very presence was untoward. And she asserted her titular authority in the pursuit of special treatment at a time when such a power play seemed wholly inappropriate.  

But there’s one way in which the altercation last month between Houston’s Democratic congresswoman and the Capitol Police deviated significantly from her reputation: She was coming to the defense of an aide, not castigating one. According to detailed contemporaneous notes taken by witnesses and provided to CQ Roll Call, Jackson Lee said this upon arriving at the scene of a traffic accident on the Hill: “What happened? This is ludicrous. I am tired of Capitol Police harassing me and my staff. Who do I talk to about this?”  

The police report outlines what happened as not at all complicated, with no apparent need for congressional intervention. At 1:50 p.m. on June 17, a gray Nissan SUV backed away from a vehicle barricade between the Cannon and Longworth buildings, at the intersection of New Jersey and Independence avenues, and the left side of the car struck Officer Terry Absher on his right side. No injuries were reported at the scene, and no citations were issued.  

What made the situation fraught was that the driver was Glenn Rushing, whose 52 months on the job makes him by far the longest serving chief of staff in the congresswoman’s 11 terms in office, where the rapid pace of turnover became legend long ago. (The congresswoman had 11 different chiefs, for example, in the decade before she hired Rushing, who took the position after a series of congressional campaign committee posts and a brief run at lobbying.)  

Unsatisfied with Absher’s “I’m alright” response to her inquiry about his condition, Jackson Lee declared, “You don’t look hurt. Where are you hurt?” and then violated one of the first rules of propriety in dealing with the police: She put her hands on the officer to assess his condition for herself.  

The congresswoman declined an invitation to detail other instances where she believes she and her aides were “harassed” or otherwise mistreated by the very police force assigned to keep the Hill community safe. And when my colleague Hannah Hess asked her about the incident last week, Jackson Lee asserted the official report and the contemporaneous account were wrong, though she declined to provide details of what was right.  

But where the details of the truth lie is in some way beside the point. That’s because the very fact the incident became public reinforces one of those Congress-is-like-high-school truisms: Bad reputations, once established, tend to be locked in place and reinforced with the slightest provocation.  

Jackson Lee’s reputation as one of the most combative and demanding members of the House — not only in her dealings with her own aides, but also lobbyists, support staff and congressional colleagues — has followed her since shortly after her arrival on the Hill.  

The unscientific annual survey of Hill aides by Washingtonian magazine regularly results in her being named “the meanest member of Congress,” and sometimes the biggest “showhorse” as well.  

Not only is she known to demand an aide drive her even the shortest distances to or from the Capitol, but she also insists a staffer follow her wherever she goes on foot — if for no other reason than to carry her handbag. She’s had well-documented feuds with the airlines over demands for special treatment. At least one overseas fact-finding trip was canceled when she signed up because the member in charge of the congressional delegation didn’t want the attendant hassles of traveling with her.  

At the same time, friends and allies describe her as almost obsessively hard-working — way more diligent than most members about understanding the nuances of legislation, and almost compulsive about constituent service and being in her community. (She’s been known to attend five funerals in a day.) She’s a political juggernaut in Houston, never getting less than 70 percent in a general election.  

Those who have taken her side in her peripatetic legislative crusades also describe her as among the smartest members they’ve worked with. (She was in the first group of women admitted to Yale, from which she graduated in 1972 before attending the University of Virginia’s law school.)  

Supporters also note how, in contrast to her distinction as a publicity hound, she kept her 2011 breast cancer diagnosis quiet and only revealed her illness when announcing her recovery.  

But her intellect, work ethic and fortitude have been swamped by her consensus standing as one of the most over-the-top and high-maintenance members. She’s spent just 2 of her 11 terms in the majority, has only chaired one relatively obscure Homeland Security subcommittee and does not have any special seniority in the Congressional Black Caucus. Her visibility on the Hill far exceeds her actual place in the power structure.  

In some years she’s made the most House floor speeches and offered the most amendments of any Democrat. Few of those succeeded, but they’ve still made her the foil of grudgingly envious humor across the Capitol.  

Before last year’s midterm, when Democrats put the Senate into legislative lockdown, Republican senators complained that as a group they had secured fewer votes on their amendments than Jackson Lee had achieved all by herself in the House.  

With all the notoriety she’s amassed, for better but more often for worse, the latest instance of Jackson Lee’s overzealousness is not much of a surprise. And maybe neither is its central aspect. She was, after all, rushing to the aid of someone who’s stuck by her as long as anyone else in her Washington career.  


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