The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At center of postal service furor, Virginia congressman finds an expanding audience

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) at a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations last month. The hearing was titled: “Federal IT Modernization: How the Coronavirus Exposed Outdated Systems.” (Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP)

By his own admission, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly is drawn to issues that are “technical and maybe just kind of boring good government,” involving IT systems, tele-working, and, yes, mail delivery.

His work as chair of a House subcommittee overseeing government operations is typically the stuff of C-SPAN, if little else.

Yet, with the U.S. Postal Service in crisis, Connolly (D-Va.) has found himself commanding a broader audience, emerging as a leading advocate for an agency that for generations has been a staple of American life.

In recent days, the congressman has accused President Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy — a Trump donor and appointee — of seeking to reduce postal service to suppress mail-in ballots in November and help the president's reelection campaign.

“It’s deliberate sabotage to prevent the outcome they fear — namely Trump’s defeat,” Connolly said during a recent CNN appearance, among a flurry of interviews he has conducted as he and other Democrats have pressed their case.

By last week, there was evidence that their campaign was successful when DeJoy said he would delay operational changes until after the election.

But Connolly, a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is to question DeJoy Monday, did not lower his volume. He tweeted a repeat of his demand that DeJoy resign and described his tenure as “the darkest in #USPS history.”

Anticipating DeJoy’s appearance before the committee, the congressman warned: “You’d better come prepared.”

House poised to pass bill to boost U.S. Postal Service amid Trump attacks

Connolly, 70, has spent nearly six terms in Congress, after 14 years on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. His district includes Fairfax and Prince William counties and is home to more than 50,000 federal workers.

An aggressive, voluble lawmaker, Connolly has found ample opportunities to exercise his dais-thumping gusto during Trump’s tenure.

During a 2019 hearing on conditions at a border detention facility, the congressman pounded his fist and exclaimed, “This is not the American way of dealing with strangers who come and seek succor!”

“I’m not calling on you sir,” he shouted at a former Trump immigration official who tried to speak from the witness table. “This is my time!”

Connolly said he has closely followed the financial tribulations of the postal service since joining Congress in 2009 — first as a member of the Oversight committee, and then when he became chair of the subcommittee on government operations.

After the novel coronavirus shutdown the country in mid-March, the congressman was among the Democrats who publicly pushed for the postal service to receive a $25 billion infusion — a request that Trump rejected.

Connolly’s warnings about depleted service were validated over the summer as reports surfaced about a slowdown in mail delivery, just as election workers were bracing for an unprecedented number of people to vote by mail because of the pandemic.

His concerns became more urgent when Trump cast doubt on the postal service’s capacity to get mail-in ballots to voters. The crisis mushroomed after DeJoy began prescribing cost-cutting measures and the agency warned that ballots might not be mailed in time to count.

Elections officials race to expand voting options as postal crisis spurs alarm

Suddenly, the congressman found himself at the center of a national furor, with a platform from which he excoriated the president, as well as DeJoy, a business executive whom he dismissed as a “political hack.”

“When you represent a district that’s full of federal employees, your focus on government operations will have a moment,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political science professor. “The issue itself is a slam dunk. Of all the targets Trump could have chosen, few have a greater potential for blowback than slowing the mail.”

In an interview, Connolly said he found it “very satisfyingthat the issue had gained such prominence.

“It has everyone’s attention and they understand it’s not just about, ‘Let’s make sure my birthday card gets there on time,’” he said. “It’s about the outcome of one of the most consequential presidential elections in living memory.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) will question the postmaster general for more details about the suspension of policy changes at a House hearing on Aug. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

At the same time, Connolly is wise enough to Washington’s rhythms to understand that the issue “could go away tomorrow and we move on to the next shiny object.”

“Fame is very fragile,” he said. “It comes and goes. I’m a little amused by it more than anything. But I’m too old to believe it’s lasting.”

Still, the congressman has demonstrated a facility for drawing attention, including several years ago after reading a Washington Post article about Trump putting up fake Time magazine covers of himself in his businesses.

Connolly created his own mock version of a cover starring himself and tweeted, “Wow, my first cover of Time.”

The tweet was liked more than 21,000 times.

Connolly, a native Bostonian who studied for the priesthood before getting a masters in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, did not enter politics until he was in his 40s.

For a decade, beginning in 1979, he was a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was elected to the Fairfax Board of Supervisors in 1995 and won a race to become chair eight years later.

During his tenure, Connolly advocated for the redevelopment of Tysons and the creation of Metro’s Silver line. A 40-mile hiking trail in the county that he pushed for is named for him.

When then-Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) decided not to seek another term in Congress, Connolly won the campaign to succeed him in the 11th District. After Connolly was reelected in a close race two years later, House Democrats altered the district’s boundaries to favor their party. Connolly has not faced a robust challenge since, including this year when his general election opponent is a little-known Republican, Manga Anantatmula.

“He couldn’t lose his district if he tried,” Davis said.

Connolly’s only political defeat occurred last year, when he lost a race to Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) to succeed the late representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) as the Oversight committee’s chair.

Asked if he would seek the chairmanship again in the future, Connolly said, “Absolutely.”

Davis described his successor as “very smart” and competent and predicted that the postal service issue would last for several more weeks before “they’ll add some money to the budget. You get your day in the sun and it goes away.”

“The ultimate question is what do we do to fix it?” Davis said. “Gerry is front and center on this. Taking on an issue is good, but long-term people will want to know what are we doing about it?”

For the moment, Connolly said his mission is to keep the public focused on the postal service and to give DeJoy the opportunity during his Oversight appearance Monday to acknowledge missteps.

“Do I think he’s going to do that?” Connolly asked. “No. I think he’s going to wiggle and squirm.”

If that’s the case, the congressman promised to maintain “relentless pressure.”

“It’s only going to grow if we don’t get the assurances we need,” he said.

Postmaster general announces he is ‘suspending’ policies blamed for mail delays

Video: Watch Rep. Connolly explain what he wants to ask DeJoy Monday

Schumer: Postal Service blocked lawmakers from key info on DeJoy’s selection