The Capitol’s Shadow Army
Hundreds on the night shift tidy the corridors of power after democracy’s workday is done
It’s 2 a.m. and the only noise in the Senate’s vast Kennedy Caucus Room is the soft wipe of a duster on marble. A lone figure with a spray bottle is busy in the wee-hours hush, a woman dwarfed by four-story Corinthian columns. For 35 years, Estelle Wimbush has spent her midnights here, amid the sweep – and the sweepings – of history.
She dusts woodwork where the cigar ash of the Teapot Dome hearings once settled. She vacuums 4,000 square feet of floor once spattered from the spittoons of the Titanic inquiry. In a room that has seen the detritus of scandals ranging from Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt to Watergate to Iran-contra, it has been the job of Wimbush and workers like her to tidy up after democracy’s workday is done.
Wimbush is part of a shadow army of overnight staffers who clock in once the elected and the connected have left, one group having plied the corridors of power, the other ready to wax them. These are the hundreds of cleaners and painters and plumbers who restore the Capitol’s gleam night after night. The artists and mechanics and trash haulers who polish the hallowed halls and ensure that the rough-and-tumble politics of one era doesn’t scuff marble that belongs to the ages.
To maintain the 290-acre complex that is, in parts, two centuries old and includes 39 buildings, its own subway and 1,400 restrooms, the Architect of the Capitol employs a staff of almost 2,400. About 770 Architect employees come to work after the sun goes down, when the endless upkeep can happen without disrupting the people’s business. Their work usually goes unseen. But after weeks of bureaucratic deliberation and the approval of House and Senate leaders, a Washington Post reporter, photographer and video journalist – trailed by an entourage of sleepy escorts – spent a night in early spring with Congress’s rarely glimpsed graveyard shift.
‘We can’t ever stop’
It’s 8:50 p.m., when – well after the surprise resignation of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) was read on the House Floor, soon after staffers have left for the nearest Metro station or the closest margarita – the painters arrive at their workshop two floors below the House chamber.
Vladimir Zotikos, 53, an assistant supervisor, dumps a bag of apples and tangerines on a break table that’s surrounded by lockers covered in Redskins stickers. Ruth Owens, 66, starts the first of four pots of coffee they will drink before clocking out at 5:30 a.m.
“They’re good guys,” says Owens, the only woman on the seven–person crew. “Sometimes they tease me. Why do you guys tease me, Kevin?”
“It’s something to do,” offers Kevin Nathan, who is preparing a can of Brunswick Beige. The workshop is a self-contained paint store: huge stacks of white latex base in five-gallon buckets, mechanical shakers, computerized pigment dispensers that can create thousands of colors.
Zotikos mutes the History Channel and the crew, all dressed in white pants and shirts, gathers around the table for a nightly ritual. Owens reads a passage from the safety manual: “Hard hats are designed to withstand the impact of a 2.5-pound hammer falling 20 feet. . . .”
It’s a moment of modern occupational safety that belies Congress’s checkered history as a workplace. Workers here tracked the country’s labor struggles, from the slaves who helped build the original structure (the Capitol’s cornerstone was laid by George Washington in 1793) to the New Deal battles over wages and working conditions, protections from which Congress routinely exempted its own workers. As late as the 1980s and 1990s, advocates protested employment conditions in the Capitol, including workers digging through contaminated trash without protective clothing.
Now, amid a push in the District and other cities for a $15 minimum wage, the Architect’s painters, custodians and other workers make $16 to $32 an hour, depending on seniority and skill level. More than a quarter of them are covered by union contracts, and full-time employees receive health insurance, retirement savings plans, transportation subsidies and other benefits. But those who work for contractors, including the companies that run the House and Senate cafeterias, can make far less.
After riding in one of the Capitol complex’s 330 elevators, Owens and Nathan are set up in the Cox Corridors, some of the House wing’s most elaborately decorated passages. Owens, who has been a decorative painter at the Capitol for nine years, begins touching up a stretch of faux marble she had painted 10 days earlier.
Almost 30,000 people work here, the population of Ithaca, N.Y., surging daily through the Capitol complex. The crush of bodies stays well below the ceiling paintings of muralist Allyn Cox, but traffic takes its toll on the lower reaches.
“This is my baby,” Owens says, picking a daub of blue from her little plexiglass palette. “We can’t ever stop.”
Nothing echoes in the corridor now but the painters’ chatter. Nathan forgot his lunch and will be raiding the break-room fridge for day-shift leftovers. Food is a challenge when lunch is at midnight and the cafeterias are closed.
A babble of distant voices passes, a private tour being led by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.). “We see about one of those a week,” says Nathan, who has been driving in each night from Temple Hills, Md., for 12 years. “When it’s the State of the Union or something, we just stay put in the shop until they clear out.”
Zotikos approaches, his steps loud in the silence. He has walked over from the Capitol Visitor’s Center, where 2 million to 3 million tourists a year congregate, and his crews repaint the walls near the restrooms almost weekly. According to his fitness app, Zotikos logs 4,300 steps a night, almost three miles, zipping along empty corridors to check in on projects.
“It’s easy,” he says, “to move around at night.”
‘Tori Amos marble’
At 11:40 p.m., shadows are dancing a ghostly waltz through the Great Hall of the Library of Congress. At the center is plumber John Yeatts’s acetylene welder, throwing a blinding glare in the half–light gloom of the library’s most intricate space, a wedding cake of arches and pillars.
Yeatts, 50, finishes brazing a sprinkler head onto a swoop of copper pipe so hot it makes a wet rag hiss. He and partner John Burroughs will install the pipe on one of the 54 arches in the chamber, part of a $4.1 million sprinkler retrofit of the 118-year-old structure. As they put the pipes in place, they hold flameproof panels between the historic mosaics and gold leaf and their 1,400-degree flame. Recently, they welded just over the case that holds a 560-year-old Gutenberg Bible, which had been removed for safekeeping.
“We are super, super careful,” says Yeatts, 50.
“Oh yeah,” says Burroughs, 63, who lives in Southern Maryland. His older brother was a Capitol plumber, too. He views these hand-bent pipes as works of art in their own right. They polish the finished metal to a shine, even though painters will come right behind them to make the pipes blend into the marble.
“I asked them to keep it copper,” he says, “but I didn’t get my wish.”
Across the room, three of those artists are on mechanical lifts, meticulously duplicating veins of marble on the shafts of sprinkler pipe, building up the effect with up to 10 layers of paint.
“I see brown, I see bluish gray, a little silver, some bluish black,” says Domenico DiPasquale, 49, peering into stone that looks just gray to the amateur. His brother is a painter on the House side. His 85-year-old father comes to paint during “moves,” the all-hands-on-deck frenzy at the beginning of each new Congress when losers leave, incumbents shift to better offices and newcomers arrive. Wave elections are the worst.
DiPasquale has worked nights for 15 years, enjoying the lack of distraction, happy to have afternoons in Hagerstown, Md., with his three teenage sons, but missing his wife, who works days as a cook and whom he sees for about an hour at dinner each day. “I don’t see a whole lot of her. But, hey, you do what you have to do.”
Under another arch, Ron Brooks, 53, is working with six canisters of oil paints he mixes himself. To Brooks, who majored in art history at the University of Maryland, every stone has not just a color but a rhythm, and he always matches music to marble.
“This is Tori Amos marble,” he says, fixing an earbud in place, turning back to the half-painted pipe that is becoming hard to distinguish from the arch behind it, even in the glare of his work lights.
“They’re pretty good, I have to say that,” Burroughs says, looking up, as his craftsmanship disappears behind Brooks’s brushstrokes.
Shortly after 1 a.m., Clayton Cox pushes a trash cart through the 800,000-square-foot Cannon House Office Building. He’s part of the ant line of laborers who collect garbage and recycling each night from Cannon’s 142 member suites, each with three rooms and 15 or so waste bins.
“I can tell they’re working on the budget,” says Cox, 50, who lives in Forestville, Md., and walks about two miles a night trundling bin after bin from about 50 offices to basement compactors. “There’s a lot more paper.”
This is VIP trash, and more than once workers have seen a panicked staffer rush down to retrieve something that shouldn’t have been tossed. As he feeds cardboard into a hydraulic baler, Tyrone Brown, 49, remembers having to call back a truck on its way to a shredder in Gaithersburg, Md. “There were a lot of cops standing around when we unloaded it,” says Brown, who lives in Southeast D.C.
After a couple of hours of collecting and compressing, the door rolls up and a pair of forklifts begins loading the shed-size bales onto a flatbed double parked on C Street. The truck comes twice a week, hauling about 20 bales a week, and that’s just Cannon. Last year, the Capitol complex shipped out more than 1.3 million pounds of waste, including more than half a million pounds of recycling.
Supervisor George Butler, 53, watches the Hyster lift beetle back and forth. Things are easier now than when his crew spent hours each night plucking white paper, bottles and cans from the flood of refuse. “I was so happy when they went to mixed paper a few years ago,” he says.
The traffic lights flash red over empty streets, and Butler is more than halfway through his shift. By 6:30 a.m., he’ll be home in Temple Hills facing the night worker’s quandary of when to sleep. He unwinds with a bowl of cereal and some non-C-SPAN TV. “When ‘The Price is Right’ goes off, I go to bed,” he says.
Four floors above, the eternal massaging of the marble floors goes on in brightly lit hallways. Pedro Flores pilots a riding floor cleaner, a kind of office-building Zamboni. He veers to avoid the West Virginia flag standing outside the office of Rep. David B. McKinley (R).
Tonight he scrubs; tomorrow he’ll polish. They strip and wax about four times a year. The drill is broken only when Congress is in session late. Then the workers stay out of the way, with cleaners paying as much attention as lawmakers do to the bells and clicks from Capitol clocks that signal floor votes and quorum calls.
“If they’re voting, we don’t put any water on the floor,” assistant supervisor Herb Kelser explains as Flores glides by. “If they go until 2 or 3 in the morning, it’s crunch time. If nothing else, we’ll clean the bathrooms, and you’ll see supervisors down here dumping trash.”
Chatting with senators
At 2:30 a.m., across the Hill in the Russell Senate Office Building, Estelle Wimbush, 68, finishes cleaning the Kennedy Caucus Room. She’s worked night side for the Senate since 1979. It was all ammonia and bulky vacuums back when Robert C. Byrd, the legendary Democratic Senate majority leader from West Virginia, would stride by. Now she buffs the chamber with a green hydroxyl cleaner and pushes a light upright. (Officials declined to identify the brand of vacuum so as not to appear to be endorsing a product.)
Otherwise, Wimbush says, “not much has changed. I guess a lot of the old senators have gone.”
She sees them when they work late. She liked chatting with two Virginia Democrats, Charles S. Robb and, more recently, Jim Webb, before they left the Senate. Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch came to the Senate two years before Wimbush and, when he stays late, they talk as she dumps the trash.
As always, Wimbush’s husband of 47 years, a retired chauffeur, dropped her off at 10 p.m. At 7 a.m., she’ll take a car pool home to Suitland, Md. Her friend and night assistant superintendant Jearlean Joyner, 68, prefers to drive. Parking in one of the Capitol’s underground garages, which are reserved for VIPs and senior staffers during the day, is a small perk for giving up a night’s sleep.
“Even though I been doing it for 37 years, I haven’t gotten used to it,” says Joyner, who sleeps by day in Oxon Hill, Md. “I just do it.”
(Officials declined to identify the number of underground garages for security reasons. And they declined to meet in one of the unacknowledged garages and whisper the name of the secret government vacuum.)
Next door at the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Tim Barnes is wrangling a 25-foot-pole to an exact spot on the ceiling. In the Rules and Administration committee room at nearly 4 a.m., he’s checking one of the Senate side’s 10,000 or so fire detection devices. There were none when British soldiers torched the Capitol in 1814. Today, they get tested a lot by microwave popcorn gone wrong, but even more by toaster ovens in one of the Capitol’s more than 6,000 offices. They tend to go off around 9 a.m.
With a small grunt, Barnes finds his spot and, giving a practiced twist of the pole, injects a puff of fake smoke into the detector.
“It’s activated,” supervisor Victor Harley calls out. The three-man crew from the Senate fire electronic branch tests and replaces smoke detectors all night, every night. It’s time for lunch now, though. Just coffee for Barnes, Campbell’s Chicken Noodle for Harley, a Lean Cuisine for Corey Mayes.
Over the modest meals, Harley, 50, says one question is sure to come up: “How much sleep did you get yesterday?”
A congressional carjacker
At 5:15 a.m., an early-bird staffer carries a coffee mug through the tunnel into the Capitol. David Printz, 63, glances at the clock; he has just a little more than two hours to get his subway cars ready to roll.
He calls them trains. Some lawmakers and staffers call them trolleys. “When they aren’t running, I won’t tell you what they call them,” he says, ducking into his track–side workshop for a grease gun and a ladder. Printz, who has worked at the Capitol for 11 years, leads a two–person team that nurses the 50-year-old House line to life each morning.
Congress’s three tiny subway lines, two running to the Senate side, one to the House, are the Capitol’s nexus of nervousness. When a vote is called, sometimes dozens a day, members have minutes to get from their offices to the “yay” and “nay” buttons on the floor. Printz’s twin trains, running to and fro on a 675-foot track, shave a precious 50 seconds off a walk that takes 1:33 at a type-A pace.
“Some of them know our schedule to the second,” says Paul Miller, 48, a general supervisor in the House elevator and subway division.
“You’ll have 20 members running toward you yelling, ‘Wait!’ and two or three on the car saying, ‘Go!,’ ” says Luke Oliver, 42, Printz’s assistant and an occasional train driver.
Oliver goes beneath the car to check the twin 25-horsepower DC motors. Printz climbs a ladder to replace a worn part near the 230-volt power line. And Miller recalls the time a train operator took a short break only to have an impatient member of Congress jump in the empty car and drive himself down the tunnel.
Miller won’t name the carjacker, but says the subway team learned a lesson. “Now we’ve hidden a safety switch so nobody can take the train,” he says.
By 6:30 a.m., they are ready to fire things up. “We’re going hot,” Printz yells, heading into the workshop. “Going hot,” Oliver repeats. Printz inserts a key into a massive breaker box, turns a pistol–grip switch and the subway car begins to vibrate and hiss.
Luke scrambles into the operator’s box. He tests the little sliding doors. One of them gives a screech. “Haven’t heard that one before,” he says. Printz takes note.
There’s a subtle bump-bump-bump as the car makes its first test run toward Rayburn. But the old rig is running smoothly after a few circuits.
Slowly, the Capitol is waking up, a glow struggles against the rain east of the dome. A Cloverland Dairy truck pulls up to a Rayburn loading dock. Eight custodial carts jockey in the hall as night cleaners file down from the upper floors, ready to head out.
At 7:31 a.m., as the night shift wraps up all around the Capitol, Oliver picks up his first staffer arriving for the day.
They exchange nods as the man boards the subway, two Capitol dwellers who inhabit opposite sides of the clock. The man wears a suit. He carries no lunch. As Oliver works with physical power – an 11-ton car on a high-voltage track – his first rider arrives to ply political power, the force of laws, the clout of influence – and the very daytime habit of reticence.
When asked his name, the rider demurs. “I’d rather not say.”