The fact that Stacey Plaskett, as a 22-year-old recent college graduate, called all the time was the thing that impressed the congressman the most.
“Ron de Lugo told me the only reason they were giving me this job was because of my persistence,” she says of her first boss on the Hill, a Democrat from the Virgin Islands and the territory’s first ever delegate to Congress.
De Lugo, an outgoing radio personality who served 10 terms in the House, knew how to laugh with his staff between the breathless, go-go-go moments on the Hill, recalls Plaskett.
But he also intensely strived for parity with the states — a cause she has continued to champion.
“Because we don’t have a vote on the floor in final passage, because we’re not treated the same, we have to work harder,” says Plaskett, now the Virgin Islands delegate herself.
I spoke to Plaskett by phone this week to ask about her path from staffer to congresswoman, including stints with the House Ethics panel and at the Justice Department, and how it all started with a phone call (or two or three) to land that initial role as a legislative correspondent.
Q: Why did you want a job on the Hill?
A: I was at Georgetown University. Though my degree was from the Foreign Service School, I realized toward the middle of my sophomore year that I may not be actually interested in joining the Foreign Service — but diplomacy has a lot to do with politics.
So I applied to work in the office of Ron de Lugo, and I applied, and I applied, and nobody responded. Finally, the office called me up. De Lugo wasn’t impressed by all the schools I’d gone to — just the fact I wouldn’t leave them alone.
Back in those days [in 1988], there was a lot of legislative correspondence work. People didn’t have the internet, so we really were their conduit to the federal government, even in the D.C. office, not just the district office.
Not that long before, there was an amnesty for immigration, with people able to get their permanent residence. So we were getting a lot of people calling the congressman about that.
Q: What was the atmosphere in the office like?
A: I will say that Ron de Lugo had a very large personality. Before he became a member of Congress, he had been involved in local politics, which in the Virgin Islands is very rough-and-tumble. When he walked in the halls, he had this very distinctive whistle that was the signal to the staff that he was coming.
He was a very gregarious person, and so when he came in, it was loud voices and loud laughter, and him recounting stuff that had gone on on the floor. We respected him a great deal, but he was definitely considered a man of the people.
As someone from a territory, he tried to navigate by having real solid relationships with members on both sides of the aisle. Particularly in the area of transportation and infrastructure, he was able to move the needle.
Q: How does that compare to how you run your own office?
A: [Laughs.] Well, my staff knows I’m pretty intense when it comes to work. I do not want us to be a reactive office. I want us to be proactive.
I like a good laugh too. Ron de Lugo, if you were from the Virgin Islands, he knew who your parents were and your uncles, your children. I want my staff to know I care about them as people, and their families also, but the work and the commitment to the Virgin Islands and to this office has to be second to none.
Right when I left the Hill in 1989, the Virgin Islands was struck by Hurricane Hugo. I came back to volunteer, and I can recall seeing Ron de Lugo sitting at his desk. I just thought of the weight that was on him, being here in Washington and having to be a voice for the Virgin Islands, particularly St. Croix, which was absolutely decimated.
Three years ago, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck the Virgin Islands, my staff and I had a late-night discussion about which legislation we thought would be passed. I was sitting here at my desk and realized, “Oh my gosh, this is right where Ron de Lugo was some 30-odd years ago, and here I am. Now I know what he was thinking.”
Q: You worked for the House Ethics Committee in the late 1990s. What was that like?
A: After law school, I eventually made my way back to the Hill, where I was counsel on the committee, worked for Rob Portman. He became a great mentor for me.
We were isolated not only from members’ staff but from other committees’ staff as well. Because all of us had committed to being nonpartisan while we were there, we tried to keep ourselves apart.
How I conducted myself caught the eye of a number of members, and right after the 2000 election, I got phone calls from members who asked me if I might be interested in going to work in the [Bush] administration. Because I hadn’t demonstrated a leaning to one side or the other, people weren’t entirely sure what my political persuasion was — and the person who mentored me, Rob Portman, said he really didn’t care. He just thought I was very professional and could get the job done, and I ended up going to the Justice Department.
Members have a great deal of respect for professional staff, for those people who have made their life about working on the Hill. We know they could be doing a lot of other things.
Q: Do you see a lot of Portman these days?
A: We don’t get to see each other as much as we used to. We’re in different chambers and different parties, but whenever I reach out to him, he’s always willing to listen.
Members on the House side have privileges on the floor of the Senate. As a member of a territory, I don’t have a senator to speak for me, and so I’ve had to use that privilege a couple of times, to actually go on the floor and look for people and try to persuade them about issues important to the Virgin Islands. If Sen. Portman is there, he’s always willing to walk me over to one of his colleagues.
Q: What other bonds have you formed on the Hill?
A: It’s not many of us who still have children at home when you’re a member of Congress. So I try to make myself available to those women who are navigating that.
I was just walking to a meeting and giving an interview for Agriculture Today, and while I’m walking, I’m reaching out to the pediatrician about one of my children still needing a vaccine for something. We’re working mothers, still, at the end of the day, making sure my daughter’s schoolwork is done and her hair is done.
I’ve talked to Ayanna Pressley about making time for our daughters, or Debbie [Mucarsel-Powell] about being a working mother.
Q: What kind of advice would you give staffers now?
A: You quickly get a reputation on Capitol Hill. For me, it was important to be known as someone who’s a hard worker, who really digs in deep on policy issues. I made myself available behind the scenes to be a resource for policy discussions. That stuff has a lasting impact.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.