Rep. Zoe Lofgren on When ‘Administrative Assistants Ran the Hill’

California Democrat started out as a staffer in the 1970s

California Rep. Zoe Lofgren started out as an intern on Capitol Hill right out of college. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
California Rep. Zoe Lofgren started out as an intern on Capitol Hill right out of college. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 16, 2018 at 5:04am

When Rep. Zoe Lofgren was a staffer forty years ago, articles of impeachment were flying. Still, she thinks Congress is more chaotic now.

The California Democrat replaced her former boss, Rep. Don Edwards, after he retired in 1994.

What was life like when administrative assistants “ruled the Hill”? Lofgren gave us an idea.

Q: What was your job with former Rep. Don Edwards?

A: I talked my way into an internship right out of college [in 1970], and then I started out at the bottom of the totem pole. I ended up writing letters and researching legislation. I went to law school while I was on his staff, and I ended up doing legal work on the bankruptcy reform bill and the impeachment of [President Richard] Nixon in ’74. I also worked in the district office [after a] number of years in D.C., and then I came back for specific events like the Equal Rights Amendment extension.

I don’t know what the title was. It was different back then. Administrative assistants ran the Hill. At one point, he offered me a position to be one of the lawyers on his subcommittee, which I turned down, actually. That was a much sought-after position, but my life would have been very different had I agreed to do that.

Q: At what point did you decide to run?

A: I’m not sure there was a particular time. I think many young staffers wander around and think, ‘Could I do this?’ So I was probably among the staffers who had that thought. After I left his staff, I ran for office, first for a community college trustee board and then the [Santa Clara County] Board of Supervisors. Although I didn’t have a mapped-out plan to run for Congress, that became a more viable idea after I’d established myself in local government.

[Rep. Rodney Davis Recalls Lessons From His Staffer Days]

Q: Did Edwards give you advice on running?

A: He never got involved in my campaigns. I think his position was if you can’t do it on your own, you shouldn’t be doing it, which turned out to be good advice. It’s such a different place. He just passed away recently at age 100. I would call him from time to time, but the way we operate is so very different than the way the House used to operate. It’s shocking, really.

Then-staffer Zoe Lofgren, right, talks with other House Judiciary Committee staffers during impeachment hearings in 1974. (Courtesy of Lofgren)
Lofgren talks with other House Judiciary staffers during the impeachment process against President Richard Nixon in 1974. (Courtesy Office of Rep. Zoe Lofgren)

Q: Tell us more about how different the Hill is now.

A: The whole operation is just completely different. It’s pretty chaotic at this point; it used to very orderly and more deliberative. It’s slapdash at this point, and it never was before.

During the impeachment, I was on Edwards’ personal staff, and I mean, it was like a vortex. It sucked everybody in. I was supposed to work just on bankruptcy. I actually wrote the article that [former Rep.] John Conyers wrote on the Cambodia bombing.

The outside staff was in what we called the hotel — it had been a hotel — in the parking lot kind of across from Cannon. It was a horrible old building.

Q: Did you and Conyers ever talk about how you wrote that for him?

A: No, I mean, he didn’t know who — it’s like now, you’ve got people handing [you] an amendment and you’re offering the amendment. He didn’t know I had written it. But I knew that I had.

Former Rep. Don Edwards, left, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren after she was elected to the House. (Courtesy of Lofgren)
Former California Rep. Don Edwards with Lofgren after she succeeded him in the House. (Courtesy Lofgren’s office)

Q: What perspective do you have now toward your staffers?

A: I don’t know how much of it is because I was a staffer. I have a chief of staff but I don’t have a legislative [director] — I’m my legislative [director]. So I work directly with each member of the staff on issues that they develop expertise on. I interact with each of them a lot and I enjoy that. I hope they do, too. They seem to like it. The tenure of my staff tends to be long. I have a woman in my district office who’s worked for me since 1985. She started working for me when I was on the Board of Supervisors. 

Q: Was there anyone you met as a staffer who you were excited about?

A: Weirdly enough, Ronald Reagan. I disagreed with everything Reagan had done as governor, but he was at a meeting and I got to go. I was prepared to despise the guy. And he was so charming. I thought, “Oh, we’re in big trouble. This guy is going to charm the pants off of people.” And sure enough, he did.

Watch: Candid, Funny and Bold — A Rowdy Night at the Congressional Dinner

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Clarification 10:43 a.m. | An earlier version of this article stated Rep. Lofgren does not have a legislative assistant. Her office later clarified it does not have a legislative director.