Bill Garcia walked briskly back into his office, wiping his hands after hauling trash cans around Echo Park in a pickup truck. He had been there several times, cleaning trash from vacant lots and scrubbing graffiti off neighborhood walls.
Garcia, a 38-year-old field deputy for Los Angeles Councilman John Ferraro, spends much of his time out in the district listening to residents' concerns and lending a hand in such roll-up-your-sleeves-and-pitch-in activities.
"Just because you work in a political office doesn't mean you can't get your hands dirty," he said with a smile.
For Garcia's labors, however, the recognition goes to Ferraro. And that's how it's supposed to work, because a field deputy is the person behind the scenes, the nuts and bolts of the political machinery.
'It Would Be Impossible'
"They understand the problems of the community and know how to respond to them," Ferraro says. "It would be an impossible task to run this office without the people in the field."
Their titles vary from field deputies to staff assistants to caseworkers. But the job remains the same: to do whatever they can to keep district constituencies happy and keep their bosses abreast of local concerns. All of this is done with an eye toward reelection, a requirement for both the politicians and their staffs to keep their jobs.
In the Glendale-Northeast Los Angeles area, which includes La Canada Flintridge, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Eagle Rock and Highland Park, there are about 40 such people working in several city, state, county and federal political offices. Each office handles hundreds of complaints and requests every month. Constituents call for help with problems ranging from the mundane to the heartbreaking to the ridiculous.
Bob Cochran, a senior staff member in the Glendale office of U.S. Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale), said he once got a call from a prostitute whose beeper was confiscated by police. She worked in a ring that used the gadgets to summon the call girls for duty. She demanded her congressman help her get her beeper back; she needed it for work.
"I told her that was one I couldn't touch," said a laughing Cochran, who called the case an odd twist to the adage, "If you've got a problem, call your congressman."
Many of the phone calls and letters caseworkers receive, however, reflect desperation: An elderly person whose Social Security check has not arrived for months, a poor family being evicted from its home or a disabled person's benefits being cut off. Most caseworkers say it is helping these people that makes the long hours and many frustrations of the job worthwhile.
"It's exciting to make a difference you can see," said Patty Prickett, a staffer in recently elected Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo's office. Woo's district includes the Los Feliz and Silver Lake areas and parts of Echo Park.
Often people call or write with problems that can be solved by a quick phone call to the appropriate agency: a tree that needs trimming, an abandoned car that needs hauling, a barking dog that needs quieting.
Victims of Bureaucracy
But many of the complaints and requests are made by people exhausted from swimming against the bureaucratic tide, transferred from agency to agency for weeks, months and even years.
Marx Willoughby, a staff member in Moorhead's Glendale office, cited as a "classic example" the case of a woman who came to her after seven times being sent a replacement Social Security card with one wrong number on it.
"To get that number changed," Willoughby said, "we had to get on the phone with--all at the same time--the supervisor of the Social Security office in Los Angeles, the woman's office manager, the woman herself, the Social Security supervisor in the Baltimore office and the woman who actually operates the computer in Baltimore in which the number would be changed. It was really a mess, but we finally got it resolved."
Henry Lozano, a senior staff member in the office of U.S. Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes Highland Park and Eagle Rock, refers to the government agencies that caseworkers spend most of their time dealing with as "the big five": Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Social Security Administration, Postal Service and Veterans Administration.
Political contacts in these agencies often help aides circumvent the usual bureaucratic runaround. And in cases in which an aide doesn't have a liaison, usually the name of his or her boss is enough to get special attention.
"Some of the agencies can bend a little," said George Chapjian, another member of Roybal's staff, "but they don't until we call."
Typically, of the several aides in most politicians' offices, some specialize in a particular area, such as the problems of the elderly. Others may be assigned to a specific area within the district, often a community they know well because they grew up there. Many political aides spend little time in Sacramento or Washington, because state and federal representatives also maintain capital office staffs to deal with legislative matters.
District field offices are usually centrally located as a convenience to constituents, and commonly decorated with the bare minimum of government issue: desks, chairs and telephones. In many of them, campaign posters and bumper stickers serve as the only art.
Henrietta Hardy, a staffer in Ferraro's ground-floor field office on New Hampshire Avenue, which is shared with the field staff of Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) to save money, said people have no trouble finding her.
60 Hours a Week
"I've had them come by and start pounding on my window," she said, "and we've had them in the lobby screaming and had to have the police come and take them away." Most offices reported getting more than 50 calls each day. Some days, during tax season for example, there are even more calls. The numbers translate into long hours for the staffers. Most said they work at least 60 hours a week.
"You don't have a lot of free time left if you plan to do your laundry and dishes in the same week," said Ollie Blanning, a staffer in the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents Glendale, La Canada Flintridge and La Crescenta.
As part of their duties, aides represent their bosses at night and weekend events, such as Chamber of Commerce mixers and church potluck dinners, at which times they often get laden with requests for help.
Larry Kaplan, who works in Woo's office, said that, after spending an hour at a cocktail mixer, "When I got home, I had 40 business cards in my pockets."
Starting Pay $15,000
Salaries for political aides vary according to experience and office budget, but pay generally starts about $15,000. City workers can go as high as $36,000, and state workers can earn up to $41,000. Federal staff members have a ceiling of $66,000.
Whether a rookie or senior staff member, however, their jobs are only as secure as their bosses' popularity at the polls. For example, after Los Angeles Councilwoman Peggy Stevenson lost to Woo in June, her staffers suddenly found themselves scattered like so much political dust in the wind.
"When the boss loses, we all lose too," said Devon Scott, a field deputy for Stevenson for seven years. "It's up to us to sell ourselves."
Scott landed a similar job in Los Angeles Councilman Robert Farrell's office. Of the seven other field workers in Stevenson's office, one went to work for Assemblywoman Gloria Molina (D-Los Angeles), two retired, two are trying to start their own businesses and two are still looking for work, Scott said.
Training for Campaigns
For some, such insecurity is good training for the all-or-nothing political world. A job right out of college as a field deputy is what they hope will be the first step of their political climbs. It is the way many of their bosses launched their careers.
Conrad Corral, a 26-year-old field deputy in Councilman Art Snyder's Eagle Rock field office, acknowledges that he has designs on the council seat, which is fitting since Snyder started as a field deputy in the district.
But Corral said it will be at least four years until he is ready to run for the position. His plans are complicated by Snyder's announcement that he will step down sometime this year. That could mean that Corral will have to start over with someone else.
"I don't worry about it," Corral said. "This is a job where you can only take things from day to day anyway."
Some Content in Positions
Others don't intend to emerge from behind the scenes.
"You lose too much of your personal life," said Cochran, who has worked for Moorhead for nearly two years. He said his typical day starts at 7:30 a.m. "and goes on and on and on. Before I file for candidacy for office, I'd have to file for divorce from my wife."
Housewives returning to the work force after raising families account for a large portion of the political aides. Many of them honed their public service skills on community service organizations and as volunteers in various political campaigns.
Many staff members have college degrees in gerontology, social services, a second language or other politically pragmatic specialties. Others, like Mercy Ruiz Cavazos, a staffer in Roybal's downtown office for more than three years, said they prefer on-the-job training to college political science courses.
'You Never Know'
"I like dealing with people," she said. "I like working. In this job you never know what's going to happen so you don't get bored."
The walls of her downtown office are filled with pictures of her boss meeting with political figures, including former Presidents John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter, the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and others. But the chairs across from her desk are often filled with lesser lights, including winos and drifters from the streets around the Federal Building. Some are regulars.
Cavazos listens, talks with them, helps them when she can. But often alcohol and life's adversities have taken too great a toll on these street people. When their talk turns to screams and threats, she has to summon security guards by pushing a concealed button. Sometimes when they leave she sprays the room with a disinfectant she keeps among the legal pads in the cabinet behind her desk.
Proud of Successes
She speaks proudly of her "successes": the middle-aged Skid Row alcoholic whom she said she persuaded to return to his family in Colorado, and the mentally retarded, epileptic young man whom she helped through the bureaucratic maze to get out of state care and live on his own.
Cavazos said she does plan to return to her college studies. She has only to complete her final year to get her bachelor's degree.
But, she said, she found "what is in the books is not reality. . . .
"Working here, I found out what gut-level politics is."