WASHINGTON – Connie Morella sat in her Capitol Hill office, trying to part with 16 years’ worth of legislative files, constituent letters and awards.
It has not been easy.
The moderate Montgomery County Republican was elected to Congress eight times from her overwhelmingly Democratic district, but lost convincingly this year to Democrat Chris Van Hollen.
As she prepared to clear out, piles of flag requests sat stacked in the lobby of her office and boxes of files blocked walkways. More than 100 cartons that had been lined up in the hallway had already gone to the University of Maryland, where they will be archived.
People rushed in and out, some paying one last visit to the woman known simply as “Connie,” some running to the district office in Rockville to help with the closing there.
Many staffers were teary-eyed, but not Morella.
In the middle of the whirlwind, she picked a sweater off a doorknob and pressed several visitors to take it. She wanted to give it away, along with dozens of other items lying around the office — pictures, trinkets, memorabilia from her years in Congress.
“That’s Connie,” said spokesman Jonathan Dean, who has been working weekends with other staffers to wrap up unfinished business before the office is completely closed Dec. 1.
No one seemed quite sure how long they would have computer and phone service. The only thing they knew for certain was that time was running out to pack up and figure out what they would do next.
“First you lose your computers. Then you lose your phones. Somewhere along the way you lose your dignity,” laughed staffer Keith Tobias.
Even though he was joking, there was a strain in his voice: Tobias worked nine years for Morella, three of them on Capitol Hill, and he does not know where he will be working next.
Dean, who has also been with Morella for nine years, said he does not have a job lined up either — but it will be hard to work for another member of Congress.
Roger Marcotte, who has been with Morella since she started on the Hill, put it this way: While staffers in some offices have to go through the chief of staff just to have a few minutes with their own congressman, that was not the case with Morella.
“She was more of a friend than a boss,” said Marcotte, who has found a job.
His future is more certain than Morella’s. She said she still wants to be involved in the community, but does not plan to run for elected office again.
“Sixteen years was good for me,” she said. “Now I’ll watch the State of the Union address on television, probably with my glass of wine.”
Staff members said she has not slowed down since the election, but she spent last week in Vienna, Austria, and will spend Thanksgiving in a cabin on the Chesapeake. Even there, though, she said she will be busy writing thank you letters to her supporters and constituents.
People have been coming and going from her office in a “constant stream” since Election Day, delivering champagne, pumpkin pie, homemade soup and flowers. Morella said she has received more than 25 bouquets since the election.
“My house has been like either a funeral home or a florist’s,” she said. “It’s very gratifying. When people die, they don’t know people are doing these things. I can enjoy it while I’m alive.”
She has also received hundreds of letters, e-mails and telephone calls — almost more than the office can handle with the move.
Staffers’ phones have not been ringing, though. Tobias said he doesn’t even bother checking his messages anymore because, “no one wants to talk to you. You lost.”
Tobias gestured to the papers strewn across his desk.
“It’s hard to look at work that was important stuff one day, be essentially worthless the next,” he said. “It’s almost like Confederate money.”
The walls of Morella’s personal office were bare Tuesday save for the dozens of empty picture hangers that ran to the top of the 14-foot walls. Whatever was not already packed was leaned against her desk and chairs, and against other piles of office detritus.
Morella made it clear she was not upset with voters, but with the redistricting by the “cronies in Annapolis” that cost her most of her Republican base and, she said, the election.
As she perched on the arm of a chair in her near-empty office, she mimicked Van Hollen’s election pitch in a deep voice: “A vote for this seat means a vote for (House Majority Whip) Tom DeLay. A vote for this seat means support of Bush.”
She continued, but in her normal voice. She’s the one with connections to the leadership, Morella said.
“Can’t they see what one member has done? This is the most intelligent district?” She shook her head slowly.
“The voters did what they wanted to do,” she said without flinching. “I look back on (my time in office) as a great privilege. I have no regrets.”