An assault on congressional staff shows how all too commonplace political violence has become

The assault in Gerry Connolly’s office is a grim reminder of just how hostile of a workplace politics has become

Eric Garcia
Monday 15 May 2023 22:24 BST
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Another day, another example of political violence. On Monday, a man walked into the district office of Democratic Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia and allegedly attacked two staffers before he was ultimately arrested.

The attack is just the latest example of how normal violence against elected officials has become. The assailant reportedly wanted to find the Virginia congressman before he opted to hit the two staffers with a metal baseball bat, according to the congressman’s office. He was ultimately apprehended, but not before the two staffers suffered injuries.

Even though Mr Connolly’s office said the injuries did not threaten the staffers’ lives, the attack shows how political violence is no longer contained just to Washington, but can spread even to district offices.

Despite the fact they still work in offices for members of Congress, district staff have very different jobs from their counterparts in Washington. The image of Washington staff as hacky social climbers who care about getting their next job on K Street has never matched reality, as many are overworked recent college graduates who are underpaid and just trying to make a living. It’s an open secret that a big reason why Hill staff are overwhelmingly white and from Ivy League institutions is that the pay is so terrible that only people whose parents can afford to subsidize them can get the low-paying staff, and cashing out to work at a lobbying firm is often to make up for years of poor pay.

All those truths are even more precise for the district staff. Oftentimes, they do the decidedly less glamorous but just as vital work of engaging with the community and making sure their interactions with the government go smoothly. They make sure their claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs are heard, their Social Security checks come on time, their passports are sorted.

These staff make sure that representatives actually represent the interests of the people. Ostensibly, this should make them safer than the ones in the US Capitol. But as politics becomes increasingly nationalised and with one political party seeing violence as wholly justifiable in the face of government it deems illegitimate, elected officials, staffers, judges and other public officials have fewer places that could be considered safe havens.

But over time, that line becomes more breached. District offices and constituent events have become common targets in recent years, most infamously back in 2011 when a man opened fire and shot then-representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head and killed six other people. It also spread in 2017 when James Hodgkinson, a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, opened fire and severely injured now-House Minority Leader Steve Scalise.

Members are not even safe in the comfort of their own homes, as was seen when a man broke into then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s home last year and assaulted her husband Paul. In addition, Representative Angie Craig of Minnesota was accosted outside her apartment in Washington. US Capitol Police has said that in 2017, it had 3,939 threat assessment cases; in 2021, that number nearly tripled to 9,625.

All of this will disincentivise good people from entering public service. One of the Rep Connolly staff members who was attacked on Monday was an intern on what was her first day on the job, NBC News reported. Many of these bright-eyed young staffers who want to do the most good often wind up on the front lines of the vitriol that people have toward their bosses. At best, it manifests itself in a nasty phone call that can rattle a young person. At worst, it can turn violent.

Last year, on the anniversary of January 6, I wrote about how many staff called it quits after the Capitol riot. Unfortunately, there are fewer signs that politics is indeed a safe and welcoming work environment.

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