Hill staffers thinking more about their own safety

Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Monday, as they signed condolence and well-wishes books in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building for the victims of the Arizona shooting rampage, congressional aides reflected on a reality that had so violently shifted.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) is battling for her life, and six others are dead - including Giffords's community outreach director, Gabriel Zimmerman. Two more Giffords aides are among the 14 people wounded by a gunman who authorities say appeared to target the Democratic lawmaker.

On Capitol Hill, Jessica Craddock, 20, was finishing her first day as an intern for a Georgia Republican lawmaker when the book-signing was taking place.

Craddock said that even in the few days she has been on the Hill, she has noticed a change.

"I feel different," she said. "I feel like the political climate in America is completely changed now. People have to be more on guard about what they say."

Craddock said she feels safe working on the Hill because "there's so many security checkpoints around here," as compared with working on a campaign.

"Here, you have the safety of a door and security guards and a phone that if people start yelling at you, you can actually disconnect the line," she said. "You don't have to stand there and have someone physically and verbally yell at you."

Even so, she added, her parents "have been texting me nonstop to make sure everything's okay."

A legislative staff is united in its mission to serve its lawmaker's agenda, but staffers work in a divided universe - there is Washington and there is back home in the district, which, after Saturday's shootings, feels even more like the front lines. Like Craddock, another intern in Arizona was just beginning his job, and on Saturday he found himself cradling Giffords's bleeding head.

The District offices are sometimes in federal buildings or courthouse complexes guarded by police officers. Most, however, serve the public in places that are easy targets for a shooter: a strip mall, a storefront, an office building. They are run by staffers, many of them young - Zimmerman was 30 - who have been confronted in the office by angry constituents.

But as lawmakers take a fresh look at their security arrangements, they have found no easy answers for giving their staffs better protection while maintaining open channels to the public. Full-time patrols, bulletproof glass and other barriers, more secure buildings - all have come up in conversations congressional staffs are having about potential changes to their district presence.

"But those changes would make it a lot harder for constituents to have direct contact with the staff and the congressman when he's back in the district," said Beau Walker, chief of staff for Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a freshman who represents northwest Arkansas.

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