Af­ter 31 years, a con­gres­sional in­sti­tu­tion within the in­sti­tu­tion is walk­ing away

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - @PKCapi­tol [email protected]­post.com

They don’t make staffers like Joe Donoghue any­more. Donoghue, 49, just ended a more than 31-year run work­ing his way up from the mail room to the pin­na­cle of power in the U.S. Se­nate, al­most all of it at the side of Sen. John McCain (RAriz.).

Donoghue helped ex­pose waste­ful spend­ing and helped write leg­is­la­tion that over­hauled cam­paign fi­nance and ethics laws. He worked two pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and made his fair share of mis­takes that led to some lively tongue lash­ings. Fi­nally, he served as a de facto coun­selor for a staff work­ing for some­one they adored, griev­ing with them af­ter he died.

Donoghue wouldn’t change a thing. “I grew up here; it’s a won­der­ful place,” he said in an in­ter­view last month just be­fore leav­ing the Se­nate. His fi­nal wish is for young aides to have nearly as much fun as he had: “Get an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for it and learn to love it. There’s no place like it in the world.”

He’s one of sev­eral con­gres­sional staff who left in re­cent months af­ter decades of ser­vice. They are peo­ple like Mark Prater, who spent 28 years work­ing for the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee; or Jill Kozeny, who de­voted 30 years to Sen. Charles E. Grass­ley (R-Iowa); or Hugh Halpern, who spent 32 years work­ing for House com­mit­tees and GOP lead­er­ship.

Thank­fully, there are still some lif­ers left on Capi­tol Hill. Ge­orge Kun­da­nis, a 42-year vet­eran of House Demo­cratic cir­cles, has a decade more ex­pe­ri­ence in Con­gress than his boss, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Bernie Raimo, Pelosi’s coun­sel, first set foot un­der the dome in the late 1960s. And Sharon Soderstrom, Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell’s chief of staff, got her first Se­nate job in 1983 and never left.

The in­sti­tu­tions within the in­sti­tu­tion, they know more about Con­gress than many duly elected mem­bers. At a time when the fed­eral work­force is taken for granted, these staffers have ded­i­cated most of their adult lives to re­solv­ing stand­offs like the par­tial shut­down that now stretches into its fourth week, the long­est in his­tory.

With­out peo­ple like Kun­da­nis and Soderstrom, Con­gress would never fig­ure out how to re­open the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

These vet­eran staff, paid lowsix-fig­ure salaries, stayed be­hind as dozens of their co-work­ers left for far richer pri­vate-sec­tor jobs.

What makes Donoghue’s ex­pe­ri­ence so rare was the sin­gu­lar tie to one per­son, build­ing a fa­ther-son bond over 31 years with some­one who lit­er­ally made his­tory.

The ninth of 13 chil­dren from a fam­ily in Hager­stown, Md., Donoghue spent his first few weeks as a fresh­man at Catholic Univer­sity in 1987 try­ing to get a job to help pay for school. At the urg­ing of an older brother, he went door to door to Se­nate of­fices search­ing for work, not sure who was a Demo­crat or a Repub­li­can.

Aides to McCain, new in the Se­nate, hired him to work the mail room for 20 hours a week. Af­ter a cou­ple of years Donoghue per­suaded McCain to hire him full time and en­rolled in Ge­orge­town Univer­sity’s night pro­gram, gain­ing a foothold in McCain’s in­ner cir­cle.

He earned his early stripes by root­ing out egre­gious ear­marks, the now for­bid­den prac­tice of di­rect­ing fed­eral agen­cies to spend on nar­row in­ter­ests. It was lonely at first, un­til Sam Brown­back (R-Kan.) joined the Se­nate in 1997 and a young Brown­back staffer named Paul D. Ryan joined the cum­ber­some task of comb­ing through leg­is­la­tion look­ing for waste.

“He elim­i­nated an aw­ful lot of my ear­marks over the years,” McCon­nell said dur­ing a Septem­ber 2017 tribute to Donoghue’s 30-year an­niver­sary in the Se­nate.

One of Donoghue’s crown achieve­ments hit home, ex­pos­ing the Univer­sity of Ari­zona’s ear­mark for “shrimp aqua­cul­ture.”

This es­tab­lished McCain’s mav­er­ick band that, along with his epony­mous cam­paign fi­nance pro­posal, pro­pelled him into a stun­ning blowout vic­tory over the front-run­ner, Ge­orge W. Bush, in the 2000 New Hamp­shire pres­i­den­tial pri­mary.

Even though he even­tu­ally lost the nom­i­na­tion to Bush, McCain loy­al­ists view the 2000 cam­paign as more fun than the suc­cess­ful 2008 GOP pri­mary, when McCain claimed the nom­i­na­tion.

“We had a blast in 2000,” Donoghue said. He served as body man at McCain’s side in that cam­paign on the “Straight Talk Ex­press” bus tours through­out New Hamp­shire and be­yond.

Hav­ing lost his fa­ther at 14, Donoghue was well aware that he sought the se­na­tor’s ap­proval the way a son reaches out to his dad. It was re­cip­ro­cated.

“He’s like a son to me,” Cindy McCain, the se­na­tor’s widow, said in a mid-De­cem­ber in­ter­view. She brought Donoghue with her on the fam­ily’s va­ca­tion over the hol­i­days.

But Donoghue got a first­hand look at the se­na­tor’s fa­mous tem­per, be­cause he worked such im­por­tant is­sues, ac­cord­ing to Mark Sal­ter, the chief of staff un­til 2009.

“G-ddamnit, Joey,” John McCain would say, echo­ing through the of­fice.

Once, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.), a long­time foe, be­gan block­ing ev­ery bill com­ing out of one of McCain’s com­mit­tees, so the Ari­zo­nan or­dered Donoghue to block ev­ery bill out of Shelby’s com­mit­tee. He even blocked a bill cre­at­ing a com­mem­o­ra­tive coin ben­e­fit­ing veter­ans — a bad look for McCain, a Viet­nam War hero.

The se­na­tor ac­knowl­edged that he said “ev­ery” bill in a lec­tur­ing call to his aide. “Yes, Joe,” he said, “but I also hoped you could use a lit­tle com­mon sense.”

Mov­ing ahead, McCain gave more and more re­spon­si­bil­ity to his leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor.

“I barked at you, teased you, laughed with you and counted on you. We’ve been through a lot of highs and lows,” McCain said dur­ing the 2017 tribute to Donoghue and told the Se­nate that he could not “imag­ine serv­ing here with­out you.”

Donoghue’s tough­est as­sign­ment came af­ter McCain was di­ag­nosed in July 2017 with glioblas­toma, a deadly brain can­cer.

Donoghue be­came al­most a care­taker in the bru­tal grind of McCain’s fi­nal five months in Wash­ing­ton, walk­ing a step be­hind him ev­ery­where he went to make sure the frail se­na­tor didn’t fall.

“Joe was very pro­tec­tive of John, es­pe­cially in these later years,” Cindy McCain said.

When John McCain left Wash­ing­ton for good, Donoghue and other se­nior staff kept younger aides focused on the job, writ­ing state­ments on pol­icy pro­pos­als, co-spon­sor­ing leg­is­la­tion and hold­ing near­daily con­fer­ence calls with their boss back in Ari­zona.

Once a month, he trekked to the McCain home in Se­dona, up­dat­ing the se­na­tor and just spend­ing time with him. “I felt like I said good­bye to him six times,” he said.

Af­ter McCain died in Au­gust, Donoghue served as pall­bearer along­side sev­eral McCain chil­dren and close friends such as then-De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis at the burial on the Naval Acad­emy grounds.

Ready to leave the Se­nate, Donoghue agreed to serve four months as chief of staff for Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) dur­ing his brief stint as McCain’s re­place­ment.

The staff, made up largely of McCain aides, needed con­ti­nu­ity with the past, Kyl said. “He is still dev­as­tated by the loss.”

Af­ter the hol­i­days, Donoghue packed up his of­fice in the Rus­sell Se­nate Of­fice Build­ing for the last time, un­sure of what comes next.

He just knows it is time to stop be­ing the guy be­hind the guy.

“I need to learn who Joe Donoghue is with­out John McCain,” he said. “It’s time for me to do that.”

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Joe Donoghue worked for Sen. John McCain for more than three decades, start­ing in the mail room and end­ing as his leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor. Af­ter McCain died in Au­gust, Donoghue served un­der his re­place­ment, Jon Kyl, but now says it’s time to move on.

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