‘I can’t help you anymore’: What it’s like to pack up and leave after decades in Congress
The massive quilt depicting Santa Barbara that hung on Rep. Lois Capps’ office wall for nearly two decades has come down. The original prints that acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams gave Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel are carefully wrapped up for the trip back to California.
Around their Capitol Hill offices, sticky notes mark items already claimed by family or staff, and stacks of frames wait to have their contents removed for easier transport. Boxes wait to hold mementos of the California Democrats’ decades in Washington.
Piece by piece, Capps, first elected in 1998, and Farr, elected in 1993, are going through the arduous process of deciding what to keep, what to donate to university archives and what to throw away.
“You walk in here and it looks like a dormitory after finals,” Farr said, saying it has been a bit awkward when people visit.
While the nation’s attention was focused on the November election and which party would lead the next Congress, or who would or would not hold on to their seats, dozens of members were quietly packing up their Capitol offices, Washington apartments and district offices.
Farr and Capps announced their plans to retire over a year ago, saying simply it was time to go home. Those who won’t be returning next year have to vacate their offices by Dec. 1.
“We will be sort of unceremoniously dispatched to the basement,” Capps said, where each retiring House member gets a cubicle to work from for their last weeks.
So far, 66 of the country’s 535 representatives and senators have either announced plans to retire, lost their primary or lost in the general election, and have to head home for good in January. A handful of races still haven’t been determined, including two in California.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is among those retiring. Before the election, her staff said she wasn’t ready to talk about packing up just yet.
California’s Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Orange) are also vacating their seats. Hahn has a big lead in her bid to join the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Sanchez lost her race for Boxer’s seat.
Rep. Mike Honda (D-San Jose) just learned he was defeated, and will have much less time to pack up and return home.
Much of the paper and digital records the members have amassed will go to local universities. Boxer announced in September that her papers would go to UC Berkeley.
Papers from Farr’s 43 years in politics, including his time on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, in the California Assembly and Congress, have been stored in his California garage. Together with papers saved from his father’s 12 years as a state senator, the congressman’s papers will be the first archival donation to a university he helped create, Cal State Monterey Bay.
UC Santa Barbara has offered to take Capps’ congressional records, and university employees have already visited Washington to select items they want for their collection.
Capps’ daughter also went through her mother’s office to help pick items the family should keep, like a copy of the Affordable Care Act, which Capps helped pass, signed by President Obama. Capps’ staff have their eyes on a few knickknacks around the office, including a wooden giraffe the congresswoman said Planned Parenthood gave her for sticking her neck out for the organization.
You walk in here and it looks like a dormitory after finals.
Rep. Sam Farr of Carmel
Except for the furniture, everything in members’ offices belongs to them. The House pays to send the members’ paper records home to be archived, but the cost of shipping things such as awards and knickknacks comes out of representatives’ pockets or leftover campaign funds.
Rather than pay to take home everything he’s accumulated in his apartment, Farr held a “takeout” party at his Washington home and asked his staffers to take anything that wasn’t nailed down. Capps emptied her apartment and moved to a hotel weeks ago.
Not headed to any university archive are the dozens of buffed wood plaques and etched glass trophies from interest groups that dot nearly every member’s office.
“This room had wall-to-wall plaques and knickknacks and a lot of glass things,” Farr said, pointing around his office. “The universities don’t want any of that. They don’t want anything three-dimensional or solid.”
Capps received a new plaque from the Oceans Conservancy shortly before she sat down to speak with the Los Angeles Times last month.
“I wanted to say, ‘Oh, just write me a letter’ because I can take that, I probably can’t save this plaque,” Capps said.
Capps said she’s grateful to have a good friend — Farr — going through the experience at the same time. Their districts stretch along much of the Central Coast.
“It’s kind of a long, bittersweet goodbye,” she said.
Capps didn’t plan to serve in Congress, but stepped up to run when her husband, Walter Capps, died of a heart attack a few months into his first term. Serving “is something I never expected, and have really enjoyed,” she said.
Capps hates the word retirement. She plans to find ways to advocate for the issues she spent decades working on: improving healthcare and the environment.
It finally hit Farr during the August recess that he didn’t feel the pull to come back to Washington. His two grandchildren live within 10 miles of his Carmel home, and they were a reason he gave for wanting to retire.
“I’m looking forward to being a full-time babysitter,” Farr said. “I always thought there would be a time when I wouldn’t have to work.”
For Farr, the hardest thing to accept is that “you are going from who’s who to who’s he?” Farr is known for his deep involvement in the district (his staff teases him that he can’t go to the store without finding several constituents to help) and that part of his identity will be the hardest to let go.
“How do you tear yourself apart and just accept the fact that my new life is as a retiree and is no longer as an elected member of the United States Congress?” Farr asked.
“People are going to come up to me and say, ‘I’ve got an immigration issue, a passport issue’ or something like ‘I’ve got a veterans problem,’ and the hardest thing is I’m going to have to say, ‘You know what? I can’t help you anymore.’”
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Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics.
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