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Congressional bosses from Hell: Sheila Jackson Lee

Jonathan Strong Jonathan Strong, 27, is a reporter for the Daily Caller covering Congress. Previously, he was a reporter for Inside EPA where he wrote about environmental regulation in great detail, and before that a staffer for Rep. Dan Lungren (R-CA). Strong graduated from Wheaton College (IL) with a degree in political science in 2006. He is a huge fan of and season ticket holder to the Washington Capitals hockey team. Strong and his wife reside in Arlington.

A lot of politicians give nicknames to their aides. George W. Bush famously referred to his attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, as “Fredo.” Mitch Daniels, then head of the Office of Management and Budget, was known as “The Blade.” Barack Obama reportedly called Larry Summers, his chief economic advisor, “Dr. Kevorkian.”

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas also hands out nicknames to the people who work for her. The Houston Democrat addressed one of her employees as “you stupid motherfucker.” And not just once, but “constantly,” recalls the staffer, “like, all the time.”

Another Jackson Lee aide recounts the time her parents came to Washington to visit: “They were really excited to come to the congressional office. They’re small town people, so for them it was a huge deal. They were actually sitting in the main lobby waiting area….[Jackson Lee] came out screaming at me over a scheduling change. Called me a ‘stupid idiot. Don’t be a moron, you foolish girl’ and actually did this in front of my parents, of all things.”

Yet another staffer remembers requesting a meeting early on in her tenure to ask how best to serve the congresswoman. Jackson Lee’s response: “What? What did you say to me? Who are you, the Congresswoman? You haven’t been elected. You don’t set up meetings with me! I tell you! You know what? You are the most unprofessional person I have ever met in my life.” With that, Jackson Lee hung up the phone.

According to the same staffer, Jackson Lee “would always say, ‘What am I a prostitute? Am I your prostitute? You can’t prostitute me.’”

Capitol Hill is famous for its demanding, insensitive bosses. Yet even by the harsh standards of Congress, Sheila Jackson Lee stands out. She may be the worst boss in Washington. “It’s like being an Iraq War veteran,” says someone who worked for her. Strangers may say, “‘oh I know what you’ve been through.’ No, you really don’t. Because until you’ve experienced it…. People don’t tell the worst of the stories, because they’re really unbelievable.”

For some, a job in Jackson Lee’s office proved not just emotionally but physically perilous. One staffer recalls a frank conversation with his doctor, who told him he needed to quit. “It’s your life or your job,” the doctor told him, warning that the stress and long hours were wreaking havoc on his body.

Only a few on staff fought back. One of Jackson Lee’s drivers became so frustrated with her abuse the person pulled the car over and demand she stop: “She’s screaming and swearing. ‘M.F.’ everything. Finally I slammed on the brakes and told her to get the hell out of my car. I’m like ‘I can’t drive with you like this. Either get out, or you can calm down.’ And she’s like ‘you need to go or get fired.’ I’m like, ‘that’s fine. But I’m either leaving without you or you can calm down,’” the staffer said.

Jackson Lee then threatened to call the police and claim she was being held hostage in the car. But she finally did calm down when the staffer called her bluff, offering to flag down a Capitol Police officer to explain the situation.

Former aide Michael McQueery said his experience with other “difficult” bosses on the Hill prepared him for how to handle Jackson Lee. “I’ve worked for two other members. They did the same thing,” he said.

“It was at first, I’m not going to lie to you, it was a rough patch with her and me. But I took her to the side and I let her know that, you know, ‘Congresswoman, I’m a man before anything else.’ And after that, we had no problems. We had no problems,” McQueery said.

Of the scores of Jackson Lee staffers contacted by The Daily Caller, only McQueery offered an affirmative defense of the congresswoman’s management techniques. “A lot of people just did not know how to go, and say, ‘hey, that’s inappropriate,’” McQueery said.

A congressional torture chamber

In 2007, on a quiet afternoon on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office building, Caroline Stephens, then a low-level staffer for California Republican Rep. Gary Miller, walked down the hall to her office, taking note of an open door that was normally closed.

Congress was in recess, and the 535 lawmakers who drive the frenetic pace on Capitol Hill were home in their districts glad-handing constituents. For that reason, the door to Jackson Lee’s office was open and the sounds emanating from inside were pleasant laughter and conversation.

“You could tell when she wasn’t there,” Stephens said. That was because on a day in which Congress was in session, a different set of sounds often came through closed doors to Jackson Lee’s office: screaming and, many times, crying.

Later that day, a skinny young black man with his hair pulled back in a ponytail walked into Miller’s office and asked Stephens for a favor. Could he borrow a knife to cut a birthday cake?

Stephens, who’d seen the man working in Jackson Lee’s office, was happy to help, with only the request to “make sure you bring it back, that’s our only one.”

He laughed. “We would never leave a knife around when the congresswoman was here,” he said. As Stephens put it, “that’s when it all clicked that they are really afraid of her.”

She’ll make you wait

“I am a queen, and I demand to be treated like a queen,” Jackson Lee once said, and apparently she wasn’t kidding. Her employees describe waiting for their boss for hours on end, sometimes late into the night, while she attends events or even sits in her office watching TV.

“You worked really, really, really late for her. When she was in town, you were in the office. So that meant, two, three, four o’clock in the morning – we were there,” one former staffer said.

“She liked to hold her staff meetings — she would individually pull in the deputy chief of staff, myself and some other people individually to go over different parts of her day. But she would literally wait until super late at night. None of us could go home, because she wouldn’t tell when she was coming back or if she wasn’t. And if she called and you didn’t answer, it was like World War III,” the source said.

Jackson Lee’s designated driver picks her up at her apartment one block from her office each morning and waits for her outside wherever she goes throughout the days and nights.

“Whatever time she told me to be there, I would always show up at least 20 minutes late, and expect to wait at least 45 minutes,” said one of Jackson Lee’s drivers. By the end of this person’s tenure, “She was making me wait in the car, sometimes upwards of five to seven hours per day.” With the car running for heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, it began to wear down the car’s engine. “My mechanic friend said, you know, your car looks like you’ve driven it twice the miles you have,” the source said.

One woman who interviewed for a job in Jackson Lee’s office arrived at 5:00 p.m. but ended up waiting for hours. “I sat there, no kidding, from 5:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. They had me waiting, and this was just for the interview. Her staffers there kept telling me to be patient, that she puts everyone through the ringer…She actually went out to dinner while I was sitting there waiting for an interview,” the woman said. A Lee staffer called the woman at 11:15 p.m. after she’d just arrived home to beg her to come back. The congresswoman was finally ready.

It wasn’t just staffers who have been made to wait. Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, cooled his heels for an hour and a half in her office before leaving. “He was there to address transportation issues – getting funding to Houston. So I was just shocked that she would let him leave,” a former staffer said. Jackson Lee was waiting for a chance to appear in front of the C-SPAN cameras on the House floor.

“I would have to wait for hours,” says Gladys Quinto, a former staffer whom Jackson Lee instructed to write a memo about why she was incompetent in front of other staffers. “I missed the last metro once. My roommate had to come pick me up.”

Nathan Williams, who quit his job when Jackson Lee threw a cell phone at him, told the Houston Chronicle in 2002, “I don’t think I ever got home before 11 o’clock at night.”

The ‘Queen’ doesn’t wait…for anything

Even though she delays others for hours, Jackson Lee won’t wait a second for her demands to be met. “She expected you to run – all the time,” says a former staffer. “There was no walking. Nobody could walk, you always had to run – everywhere. She viewed walking as being lazy, so everyone always had to run.”

Another former aide added that the congresswoman would clock her on how long it took her to run an updated schedule print-out from Jackson Lee’s office in the Rayburn building to the House floor. “She would actually physically time you in terms of from office to getting to the [House] floor and finding her, hunting her down,” the staffer said. Then Jackson Lee would demand, “what took you so long?”

Her former drivers say the congresswoman demanded they run red lights and drive on highway shoulders around traffic. This caused at least one accident. As Jackson Lee was yelling at a staffer to drive faster she turned too sharply, smashing the side of her car into a wall.

Jackson Lee’s requests don’t stop at the end of a normal working day. “In the middle of the night, people had to go get her garlic. She’ll call you at two in the morning for garlic because she takes them as supplements,” a former staffer said. Jackson Lee’s garlic runs were confirmed by other staffers, too, though no one could remember the exact brand of the supplement. The deputy chief of staff “would have to go get it, and he would have to go drop it off. It was some kind of a multi-vitamin,” another former staffer said.

On Christmas Eve, one staffer was at a midnight mass ceremony at her church. When the boss called, the staffer didn’t answer. “She got so irritated that I wasn’t answering her call on Christmas Eve. So she called me every minute for 56 minutes,” the source recalled.

Jackson Lee on race

Jackson Lee has always been quick to assign racism as a motive of her political opponents and others. In 1997, for example, The Hill reported that the newly-elected congresswoman asked NASA officials whether the Mars Pathfinder photographed the American flag astronaut Neil Armstrong had planted on the surface of Mars. When it was pointed out that the flag in question was on the moon, not Mars, Jackson Lee cited bigotry. “You thought you could have fun with a black woman member of the Science Committee,” her then chief of staff wrote in a letter to the editor.

Jackson Lee recently blasted a Pepsi advertisement shown during the Super Bowl in which a black woman throws a can of soda at her husband for ogling an attractive white woman next to them. “It was not humorous. It was demeaning — an African-American woman throwing something at an African-American male and winding up hitting a Caucasian woman,” she thundered from the House floor.

In 2009, she helped prevent Rush Limbaugh from becoming an NFL owner. “He does not represent the fullness of appreciation of athletes of all diverse backgrounds, no matter what he wants to pretend to say on his radio station,” Jackson Lee said.

In 2003, she demanded that more Hurricanes be named with African American-sounding names.

A former staffer recalls one revealing episode during the height of the financial crisis in the waning months of the Bush administration. Jackson Lee demanded a meeting with a top Treasury aide, even though she did not sit on any of the committees with jurisdiction over financial matters. As her car pulled up outside the Treasury, Jackson Lee told her driver to park directly outside the door.

Due to the proximity of the Treasury Department’s headquarters to the White House, Secret Service officers told the driver not to park there. After an argument with the agents, who kept telling the driver to back off, Jackson Lee finally emerged from the building.

As the car drove away, a Secret Service van flashed its lights behind them. “Keep driving,” Jackson Lee told her staffer. Ultimately, the driver pulled over in defiance of the boss’s wishes. At this point, Jackson Lee emerged from the car, screaming, “I’m Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee! Who do you think you are?” to a team of Secret Service agents.

Jackson Lee accused the “white” agent at the gate of racism, claiming she wouldn’t have to deal with “this stuff” when Barack Obama became president. She then filed a formal complaint with the Secret Service, which prompted an investigation. A Treasury official later explained that the accusation had been dismissed because the agent in question was Hispanic, not white.

Given Jackson Lee’s apparent touchiness on racial questions, there’s a certain irony in the fact that aides claim she is far harsher to the African Americans who work for her. “’You stupid mother-effer’ was like a constant,” says one. “Like, all the time. But the interesting thing is she would really project that behavior more towards her African American staffers. She would have other ethnic groups in the office, like interns or whatnot. But it was really her African American staffers who she felt comfortable enough to really curse out…. This is something we always talked about. We chalked it up to her just feeling more comfortable acting out her aggression toward a certain group of people versus others.”

“She is very strange in who she insults and how. For some reason, it seemed like she was racist against African Americans,” another said.

Why she would come down harder on black staff was one of many mysteries that provoked endless speculation from those subject to her abuse.

“We would sit around and try to analyze why she was so miserable,” a former staffer said, “We all kind of felt bad for her. She was such a lonely, miserable person. And it must suck to work on Capitol Hill and have all of your colleagues hate you, right?”

The good, the bad, and the zany

And yet for all the nastiness, Jackson Lee also exhibits a zany side. She regularly asks that documents be printed in different colors. She has staff drive her from the Rayburn building to the Cannon building to attend homeland security hearings. She sometimes demands two staffers in two cars pick her up from the airport, one for her, the other for her luggage. On one occasion, she demanded an aide wear a green hat when picking her up.

One day in March of 2004, Jackson Lee told colleagues on her hall in Rayburn that the corridor would be closed from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. to accommodate her visit from Michael Jackson. The House Administration Committee promptly informed her that she had no authority to close a public hallway.

Staffers describe Jackson Lee as a hoarder. For example, she keeps over twenty boxes of the book “Black Americans in Congress” in her office, hundreds of copies in all. From time to time, she adds new copies of the same book to her collection.

Aides who’ve worked for Jackson Lee for years will call her on her cell phone and, despite the caller ID on her blackberry, she invariably answers, “This is Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.” When getting into the car in the morning, she will give her aide directions to the Rayburn building one block away, even if the aide has been driving her there every morning for months or years.

Jackson Lee’s speeches are frequent and eccentric enough to have occasioned a game in other Capitol Hill offices. Every day, one staffer puts money into a Sheila Jackson Lee jar. If she speaks on the House floor, as she usually does, the jar moves to the next desk. On the rare day she doesn’t speak, the staffer holding the jar wins all the money.

It’s funny, but not really

Not surprisingly, Jackson Lee has one of the highest staff turnover rates in Washington. Over the last ten years, at least 39 staffers have left within one year. Over that time, Lee has employed at least nine chiefs of staff, eight legislative directors, and 18 schedulers or executive assistants, according to records of federal disclosure forms published by the website Legistorm. Nine staffers left within two months, 25 within 6 months.

The many veterans of Jackson Lee’s office meet regularly for drinks and stories. We “still get together to have a cathartic release,” says one. “We sit around and tell these stories and just work ourselves into a state of rage.”

Jackson Lee’s view

TheDC made several vigorous attempts to speak to Jackson Lee about her staff’s accounts of life in her office. Jackson Lee made an even more vigorous effort not to answer the questions.

This Monday, after 6:30 p.m. votes, Jackson Lee spoke to an empty House chamber in celebration of African American history month, veering off topic to blast Republicans for trying to cut spending. “Why do you have to have your way or the highway?” she asked.

Afterwards, she went into the Democratic cloakroom, a lobby alongside the House floor where lawmakers often congregate. After half an hour, I checked with the reliably helpful Capitol Hill police and other assorted staff to see if she’d left by another route, but apparently she had not. By this point, the lights in the House floor had been turned off, and every other lawmaker was gone. I knew from my reporting it could be hours. “She’s just sitting in there, forever!” I said to a group of policemen. They laughed knowingly. Finally, I left.

The following day during House votes, Jackson Lee briefly emerged from the House floor with her cell phone in hand. “Congresswoman, I need to interview you,” I said politely. She looked at me, scanning up from my waist to my face, said nothing and hurried back onto the House floor.

Later, she held two meetings in the wood-paneled Rayburn Room. The room has only two exits, one of them into a hallway, the other to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. As the meeting ended and she got up to leave, a staffer whispered to her. Jackson Lee walked quickly toward Pelosi’s office. “Congresswoman! Congresswoman! Congresswoman Jackson Lee!” I said. She muttered something about a “meeting” and escaped into the office.

Finally, I went to Jackson Lee’s own office in the Rayburn building. Her press secretary was not available. I spoke instead to a woman at the front desk, explaining that I had spoken with many of the congresswoman’s former aides, most of whom had damning things to say about Jackson Lee. The woman laughed. She knew all about the article. I gave her my cell phone number, but Jackson Lee never called.