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The Goods : At Your Service : Whether It’s a Social Security Woe or a Political Complaint, Congressional District Offices Are There to Listen and Help You

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last year, a Los Angeles mother journeyed to Mexico and recovered two sons kidnaped by their father.

The grateful mother succeeded because the district office of U.S. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) secured help from the State Department and the Mexican consulate.

Meanwhile, a dying former pilot in Los Alamitos, wounded and captured in a dangerous World War II mission over Austria, was belatedly awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

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The pilot finally received his medal because the district office of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) interceded with the Air Force.

These cases are among tens of thousands handled each year by the district offices operated by each member of Congress in his or her home district. Each of the federally funded offices serves about 600,000 citizens.

A visit to a district office “takes us back to 19th-Century America, when there was a stronger connection between the electorate and elected officials,” says USC political science professor H. Eric Schockman.

In an era when it often seems as if government service and influence is monopolized by lobbyists in Washington, district offices give every citizen a local place to get help or just sound off.

Working long hours in crowded offices with well-used furniture and constantly ringing phones, the staffs help constituents solve problems with federal agencies or express opinions on political issues.

“We’re a one-stop service center,” says Rose Castaneda, an administrative assistant in the office of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City). “Sometimes I feel like McDonald’s. Tell us what you want and we facilitate it.”

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“To be a good caseworker, you can’t give up when normal procedures don’t work. You’ve got to ask what else might work,” adds Yolanda Chavez, chief of staff for Roybal-Allard.

“That comes with rapport you have with different offices. You also must have a passion about helping people. You work as a mediator between the agency and the constituent. The bottom line is that the constituent gets the service they deserve.”

Typically, district offices help people work out problems with Social Security, Medicare, the Veterans Administration or the Immigration Service, says Kathleen Hollingsworth, district director for Rohrabacher’s office.

“Usually 70% to 75% of our casework involves those agencies,” she says. “The Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department are important simply because we have so many new immigrants in this area. . . . We often have people saying ‘I want my grandmother to visit here and they won’t give her a visa.’ ”

The Pasadena district office of Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) recently helped a woman with lupus, arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome gain disability benefits formerly denied by Social Security.

Staffs may also help constituents replace lost Social Security checks or gain Medicare coverage.

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Representing the district with the nation’s highest percentage of Latino population and lowest median income, Roybal-Allard’s office teaches people how to qualify for tax credits, home ownership, banking services and citizenship.

The offices also react to emergencies. Following the Jan. 17 earthquake, Berman’s staff found an apartment for a pregnant woman whose residence had been destroyed and who was due to give birth in a week. It replaced another constituent’s damaged wheelchair and bought $300 of insulin and syringes for needy diabetics.

In addition to breaking logjams with federal agencies, the offices may refer matters outside federal jurisdiction to state or local authorities.

Their other big job is to help constituents express opinions or get information on legislation.

“When big issues are up, like health-care reform or NAFTA, we don’t get our routine work done,” says Hollingsworth in Rohrabacher’s office. “People are constantly writing and calling with their opinion.” A staff member summarizes the views and sends them to the congressman in Washington.

District offices also book the representative’s schedule, make nominations for appointments to military academies and dispense tickets for Washington tours.

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People who have serious business with a district office should visit it personally, USC’s Schockman says.

“When a person (in the staff office) is connected with a welfare mother or an AIDS patient or someone who is really suffering, and sees that individual on the other side of the desk, I think there’s a greater response level to that case.”

But staff members say telephoning the office is more efficient. “It saves them a trip and it’s rare that we can’t help them over the phone,” says Patricia Miller, administrative assistant to Rep. Julian C. Dixon (D-Los Angeles).

Staff offices, usually run by four to eight people, are listed in most phone books under United States Government Offices. They can work quickly in emergencies or, on more routine matters, follow up and keep written records of cases as they progress.

Staffers say they’re too busy to tally up the cases they handle. But Pat Walmisley, staff assistant for Moorhead, says she has 420 ongoing requests and recently closed one that began in 1988. Rohrabacher’s office has 479 cases in progress, Hollingsworth says.

The offices are effective because Congress and federal agencies have reasons to cooperate, says Gary Jacobson, professor of political science at UC San Diego.

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“Congress wants good relationships with the agencies because it will be asking them for things,” Jacobson says. “People in the agencies want to be seen as fair, effective and competent because Congress enacts their budget every year and writes the laws that create their jobs.”

The district offices can’t solve everything, however.

Dixon’s office in Los Angeles “received a few calls recently from people who have concerns about whether their home may be in foreclosure,” Miller says.

“Because the lender is federally chartered, they’re hoping we can be of assistance. That problem isn’t within our jurisdiction. If a lender operated outside guidelines, we could intervene.”

Not all calls are about crucial matters such as losing a home. One man asked to speak to Rohrabacher about why the Food and Drug Administration would allow manufacturers to put plastic in cheese products. Seems the man was melting cheese in a pan on the stove and the cheese turned “gooey like glue.”

“I said since it was processed food, he might want to add a little milk and turn the heat down,” Hollingsworth recalls. “I never heard back.”

But most calls are important.

A recent telephoned donation of 200 gallons of paint to Berman’s office made Castaneda happy.

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The paint would transform the exterior of the peeling Monlux Elementary School in North Hollywood. The campus had not been scheduled for painting for many years, but will now be beautified in a community effort spearheaded by Berman’s office.

The staff had hurried to help arrange the project after a call from the school six days earlier.

“We met with the principal and scheduled a Saturday to bring in parents to paint,” she says. “We made phone calls and got promises of contributions for paint and equipment. It wasn’t really a hard task.”

Those kinds of results are satisfying.

“People ask me, ‘What do you do?’ ” Castaneda says. “I tell them: ‘I respond.’ ”

CASE STUDY 1

THE PROBLEM:

The Monlux Elementary School in North Hollywood needs a paint job, but is not scheduled for painting by the Board of Education for many years. Principal Naomi Suenaka, center, examines the deterioration with Marti Farless and Ellison Weeks.

THE SOLUTION:

A call to Rep. Howard Berman’s Mission Hills district office. It obtains donations of paint and equipment, and spearheads a community project to paint the school.

CASE STUDY 2

THE PROBLEM:

A dying World War II pilot wants recognition for a dangerous bombing mission in which he was wounded and taken prisoner.

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THE SOLUTION:

A call to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s Huntington Beach district office. It contacts the Department of the Air Force, which awards the man a Distinguished Flying Cross.

CASE STUDY 3:

THE PROBLEM:

Teena Rossitto, suffering from lupus, arthritis and chronic fatigue syndrome, is denied Social Security benefits.

THE SOLUTION:

A call to Rep. Charles J. Moorhead’s Pasadena district office. It contacts the agency and helps clear the roadblock. Her benefits begin arriving.

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