The blood on the rug and walls of Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s Fairfax, Va., office can be cleaned. The shattered glass can be repaired.
But the emotional toll of the recent assault on two staffers by a bat-wielding constituent is far greater than the temporary damage to the office.
“It’s going to be months of recovering,” Connolly told CQ Roll Call, a little more than a week after the attack. “Meanwhile we’re supposed to still do the job. They’re more than a little afraid of answering the door for strangers or of going to events, or even just dealing in-person with people.”
Xuan-Kha Tran Pham, 49, who faces federal charges related to the assault, entered the office May 15 looking for Connolly. But the Democrat, who has represented Washington suburban district since 2009, was out of office at an event — leaving an intern, who had just reported for her first day on the job, and a staffer to bear the brunt.
The staffer was hit eight times in the head and suffered a concussion, Connolly said, while the intern suffered bruises and contusions to the side of her body.
The attack comes amid a recent string of highly publicized incidents that have left staff on edge and are raising questions about security, especially away from Washington.
“Staffers are hurting right now,” said Michael Suchecki, a spokesperson for the Congressional Progressive Staff Association, who works in the office of Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass. “We pour our hearts into serving our communities and our country, but we’ve been shaken by the recent uptick in threats of violence, the online doxing of employees and a brutal attack on office staff.”
The attack at Connolly’s office came less than two months after a staffer for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was stabbed repeatedly while walking with a friend on H Street Northeast in Washington.
Also in March, the Capitol Police seized an assault rifle from an individual “targeting and stalking a congressional staff member,” Capitol Police Chief J. Thomas Manger testified to the House Administration Committee on May 16.
And earlier this month, Ken Klippenstein, a reporter for The Intercept, attempted to “name and shame” staff working for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., by posting their names, pictures and some email addresses and salaries to Twitter, in a move that was broadly condemned by staff groups as a threat to their safety.
The cumulative effect of incidents like these has been a widespread feeling of unease.
The crime scene has closed and Connolly’s office has reopened, but he’s down from six working staff members to two, as some who were present for the attack have requested time off.
“There were others who were there and witnessed it and experienced real trauma. And we’re going to give them all the time and space they need,” Connolly said.
No more open-door
Connolly had an open-door policy since coming to Congress in 2009. That has changed in the weeks since the attack.
“You’re going to have to make an appointment. We’ll have a camera there and you’ll have to be buzzed in,” Connolly said. “I hate it, but I have to do it for everyone’s security.”
Connolly already had a security system in place and Capitol Police had conducted a security assessment as recently as January, when Connolly moved his district headquarters to the ground-floor commercial unit.
Those precautions weren’t enough, he learned, and he’s now engaging with private security contractors, the Capitol Police and the House sergeant-at-arms, which primarily oversees district security through its District Security Service Center.
Protecting members and staff away from Washington is no small task with 535 members of Congress, many with multiple district offices that are often positioned strategically to encourage foot traffic.
For that reason, Mitchell Rivard, chief of staff for Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and co-chair of the House Chiefs of Staff Association, urged fellow chiefs of staff to work with the sergeant-at-arms and Capitol Police to utilize all resources available.
Those include the free installation of an alarm and duress system and door video intercom system at one district office per member, according to a senior Republican House aide.
Members’ Representational Allowance funds can be utilized to pay for the installation of security systems at other office locations or for additional security equipment, like lock improvements, access control, closed circuit television and security film, the aide added.
But much is left to individual members.
The POPVOX Foundation, a nonprofit that supports innovation in government and civic engagement, urged members in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol to engage with local law enforcement, establish policies that prevent any staff member from being alone in an office and ensure all new employees are trained in office protocol.
Planning ahead is crucial, according to POPVOX’s deputy director, Anne Meeker, a former staffer for Moulton.
“The more you practice, the more it’s part of your work and it’s part of your everyday life, the better prepared you are,” Meeker said.
‘Could’ve been any of us’
But security protocols and safety drills may be a small consolation for staff in the face of rising threats. The number investigated by the Capitol Police rose to 9,625 in 2021, from 3,939 in 2017, tapering somewhat to 7,501 last year, according to the department.
“There’s no question that the tenor of interactions with the public has changed in the last few years,” Meeker said. “Look at some of the parallel statistics: Road rage incidents are up. Violence on airplanes is up. I think the country is a little bit on edge.”
The Capitol Police opened field offices in California and Florida, where threats were most frequent, in 2021 to better respond to increasing security risks and better work with law enforcement agencies, according to a department spokesperson.
The department has also repeatedly requested budget increases, in part to bolster security of members, staff and their families in their districts ahead of a presidential election year. Republicans introduced a Legislative Branch funding bill that would provide the Capitol Police with a roughly 14 percent increase, on track with what the department requested, but the fate of that proposal remains unclear as the GOP looks to cut spending.
Incidents, meanwhile, continue to pile up.
Last week, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., allegedly received a death threat from a former football player for the San Francisco 49ers via social media, which he attributed to the climate created by former President Donald Trump.
“Goodness will win. But MAGA Nation and the evil it inspires is working hard to take us to a dark place,” Swalwell tweeted May 18.
Suchecki, who said he received death threats while working as an intern in Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar’s office, also blamed Republicans for excusing the “violence of white supremacists and January 6th insurrectionists.” The Capitol Police, however, said in January that members from both parties receive similar numbers of threats.
Though the attacker at Connolly’s office appeared to be struggling with mental health and was not politically motivated, according to Connolly, the event still serves as a reminder that there are benefits to toning down partisan rhetoric. In the wake of the attack, he said he saw politics evaporate. Colleagues from across the political spectrum reached out to express their support.
“I think it dawned on my colleagues that this random event could’ve been any of us,” Connolly said.
In addition to hardening the exterior of his office, Connolly has occupied himself with helping his staff get the medical care they need. He said he’s helped to find a concussion specialist for the staffer who suffered a head injury and line up mental health counseling for others in the office who witnessed the attack.
“I’m consumed with my staff,” Connolly said. “They really are like family.”