Congressional Bosses From Hell: Sheila Jackson Lee

Jonathan Strong, Daily Caller (Washington, D.C.), March 2, 2011

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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.'”

{snip} 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.

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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 435 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.

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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.” {snip}

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. {snip} Jackson Lee was waiting for a chance to appear in front of the C-SPAN cameras on the House floor.

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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. {snip}

Her former drivers say the congresswoman demanded they run red lights and drive on highway shoulders around traffic. This caused at least one accident. {snip}

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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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

A former staffer recalls {snip} 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. {snip} 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. {snip}

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

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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. {snip}

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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.

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