Quake Opens Up New Ground for Politicians : Congress: House members from Northridge-area districts share in the pain. They also get a chance to forge closer ties to constituents and boost their profiles.
For congressmen whose communities were devastated by the Northridge earthquake, it has been the worst of times and the best of times.
They have faced the double whammy of being displaced from their own quake-damaged offices at a time when they were scrambling to help constituents. But in a few intense weeks, they have also had an extraordinary opportunity to forge closer ties to their districts and boost their public profiles.
Despite operating out of makeshift quarters in the old San Fernando police station, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) said that what he and “primarily my staff have been able to do in the last month may exceed what we have been able to do for our constituents over the last 12 years.”
First-term Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), whose district includes Northridge, has played tour guide to President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and various Cabinet officials visiting quake-ravaged sites. And he has been interviewed by CNN, the Washington Post and local television and radio stations--all of which is noted in an “internal memo” on McKeon’s quake response that his office sent to reporters.
Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills) reports that his office has fielded more than 2,500 quake-related calls, and that he and his wife have dispensed hugs to dozens of people. For him, the “spirit people find in themselves and each other” has been the tragedy’s silver lining.
Usually too far away to be involved with the daily lives of those they represent, the lawmakers have been jolted into expanded roles as ombudsmen for the distressed. Their work clearly has aided them politically, but they insist that those benefits mean far less than the chance to directly help people in need.
Most of the congressmen were in California for their midwinter break when the quake occurred. Initially, they acted as eyes and ears for federal and state officials pouring in to provide emergency aid.
Since then, the representatives have toured shelters, disaster centers and neighborhoods, and commiserated with constituents. Beilenson was struck by the many residents whose homes and businesses were demolished, a one-two punch that he said left “a lot of people in tears.”
Berman recalls a night at a shelter in the Van Nuys High School gymnasium packed with hundreds of people--Jewish seniors from North Hollywood, immigrants from Iran and Armenia, Latinos from San Fernando, blacks from Pacoima--"a microcosm of Southern California all thrown together by this event.”
Back in Washington, the lawmakers helped pass the $8.6-billion emergency relief bill, the biggest disaster aid package ever adopted.
Paul Clarke, a Northridge corporate political consultant and former chief congressional aide, said such a catastrophe offers elected officials a golden opportunity to appear effective as well as concerned.
“It’s easier to deal with this than a smaller problem,” where results may be harder to come by, Clarke said. “So it seems to me that this is the type of thing you hop on.”
Relating to constituents’ hardship came naturally. The lawmakers shared some of the physical and mental trauma.
The chimney at McKeon’s home was destroyed, his Santa Clarita district office was trashed and several Western clothing stores that he and his brothers own were temporarily closed. His brother Joe’s home was so badly damaged that Joe McKeon and his family moved in with the lawmaker.
Berman’s fifth-floor office in a Panorama City high-rise was turned topsy-turvy. The building was condemned initially, but may be reopened. The lawmaker is making arrangements to move to new quarters while making due in temporary facilities. “We’ve gone back to the horse-and-buggy days of plain old typewriters,” Berman said.
He is sharing space with other government agencies that were ousted from their offices by the quake. Some are working in the former San Fernando police building’s graffiti-covered jail cells and holding tanks. Papers and files are strewn throughout Berman’s office.
His staff has been able to retrieve only some constituent case files and other documents. In the days immediately after the temblor, he and other lawmakers operated out of aides’ homes, relying on cellular phones to communicate.
McKeon had to be ferried from the Santa Clarita Valley to the San Fernando Valley by Los Angeles County sheriff’s helicopters because the Golden State Freeway had collapsed. Berman and his aides obtained vital water and medicine for displaced people throughout San Fernando, Sylmar and Van Nuys. Beilenson lobbied for emergency tents to be erected in parks throughout his district.
In the aftermath, the congressional staffs report an explosion of constituent calls for earthquake-related assistance. They poured into McKeon’s office at a rate of 200 a week--five times the usual flow. Beilenson sent out a letter with information about aid programs; earthquake problems have kept his district office phones ringing.
The lawmakers said they were deeply impressed by the resilience they observed. Such was the case when Berman came across Mary Isabella Kidd at the Sylmar High School shelter.
Kidd, 80, who uses a wheelchair, and her adult, brain-damaged son had lost their home. Prone on a green cot, the spirited Kidd told Berman that she was philosophical.
“I’m half Chinese and my father used to say not to worry when we had an earthquake,” she said with a smile. “It was just a dragon turning over. And now the dragon’s done turning.”
McKeon, a conservative critic of big government, emerged from the post-quake experience with respect for the performance of a federal bureaucracy he had disparaged as a morass of red tape and unresponsiveness. And he was uncharacteristically complimentary of the Clinton Administration.
“They’ve done a fantastic job at all levels,” McKeon said.
Outside a shelter after the quake, Berman encountered Margaret Leeseman, 72, who said she had fled her trailer park home when “my hair caught on fire.” The lawmaker inquired about her needs and gave her phone numbers to call for disaster assistance.
“He’s buttering his bread,” Leeseman said after Berman departed. “I don’t mean to be mean about it, because a lot of people will be helped. I think it’s smart. In times of trouble maybe there’s nothing wrong with being political-minded.”