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By Craig Malisow
Only five days into her first term as a member of Congress, Sheila Jackson Lee hurried into her small office in the Longworth Building. Back home, while serving on the Houston City Council, Lee had forged a reputation as a brusque and imperious boss, and her short time in Washington hadn't changed her. "I want that ASAP" seemed to be her favorite phrase -- and on this day, she had a rush order for her legislative director, Meredith Jones.
In January 1995, the 104th Congress was fizzing with the arrival of Newt Gingrich's freshman warriors. Lee, one of the relatively few new Democrats, was determined to make a splash on the House floor. She coolly informed Jones that the staff had 30 minutes to craft an amendment to a piece of legislation that neither they, nor Lee, had ever seen.
Unlike Lee, Jones was an old hand on Capitol Hill, a ten-year veteran who had worked for Congressman Mike Andrews. She had a reputation as a nuts-and-bolts operative and seemed the perfect navigator for a freshman legislator unfamiliar with Washington do's and don'ts.
Clearly, what Lee was requesting was a don't: Don't waste the time of the other 434 members of the House with a frivolous, ill-considered amendment. A former Lee staffer explains the absurdity of the congresswoman's demand: "Look, you're a freshman. You're in the minority. You don't even know what the goddamn bill is that's being offered. How are you going to offer an amendment to it when you don't even know where the ladies' bathroom is?"
Jones tried not to offend her new employer as she gently explained that rushing to the floor with a slipshod amendment would only damage Lee's credibility. Give the staff more time, pleaded Jones, to do some research and come up with amendments that had a chance of attracting respectful discussion, if not passage, in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Lee glared. When Jones finished, the congresswoman barked, "You now have 29 minutes!"
That incident reveals much about Sheila Jackson Lee. Jones did produce an amendment -- but like a myriad of others that the congresswoman offered in her first term, it went nowhere, while alienating the very people who could make it possible for her to represent her district effectively.
It's a cost Lee has been willing to bear as she pursues other imperatives: Speak, Be Seen, Be Quoted. She won her seat in Congress by defeating Craig Washington, who had lost contact with his constituents. Lee is determined not to make the same mistake, and frenetically tries to ensure that voters in the 18th Congressional District hear and see her on an almost daily basis.
In case the folks back home didn't know that the new congresswoman was hard at work, Lee instructed her staff to spew out mounds of press releases, sometimes four or five a day. Aides were also told to write "special orders" speeches for Lee to deliver at the end of the day to an empty House chamber -- and, more important, to a C-Span camera, and thus to cable-TV viewers in Houston. Lee also demanded scripts for the one-minute partisan presentations that members make at the start of the House's daily sessions. It's not unusual for members to make such speeches, but Lee wanted to make one almost every day. As her term wore on, other members of Congress compared her to the kid in the Life cereal commercial: "She's like Mikey. Give it to Mikey, he eats anything. Give it to Sheila, she speaks on anything."
Former aides say that Lee seemed oblivious to the basic rules of establishing a congressional career and refused to take the most common-sense advice on maintaining credibility and serving constituents' needs. Such obtuseness disappointed her staff, who'd come to work for her with high hopes. Most of her original aides were black, female or both. To them, Lee must have seemed nearly perfect: an outspoken young black congresswoman, a liberal Democrat elected in a year of Republican gains. But any hopes they had were soon shattered.
Lee couldn't keep employees. In her first two years, 19 staffers came and went. Her turnover rate -- 180 percent in two years -- was the highest of any member of Congress, according to the Capitol Hill weekly Roll Call.
It might be argued that Lee's faults as a boss would be overlooked in a politician who is white or male. But former employees maintain that her behavior would be notable regardless of race or gender, and they're in a position to know. Many now work for government agencies or private enterprises with government contracts. (Nearly all asked not to be quoted by name, for fear of damaging their employers or their careers.) Of the onetime employees who spoke with the Press, many were female, and most were black.
To be sure, some former Lee aides -- such as Lauri Andress, a City Council aide to Lee, and Clarence Bagby, who worked in her district congressional office -- remain loyal to Lee, and say they would consider working for her again if asked. But most former employees interviewed by the Press say they'd never repeat the experience.