Seats Maintained, But A Hideaway Lost

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Robert Primus, chief of staff to Rep. Michael Capuano, does business in an underground corridor beneath the Capitol. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)
Robert Primus, chief of staff to Rep. Michael Capuano, does business in an underground corridor beneath the Capitol. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

This week marks the beginning of what promises to be a challenging couple of years for Massachusetts Democrats here in Washington.

As the 112th Congress convenes Wednesday, House Republicans are already pledging to dismantle the national health care overhaul that members of the Massachusetts delegation worked to pass.

And some fear health care is only the beginning. Rep. Michael Capuano enters the new session with a long list of worries.

"How vehemently will they go after it?" Capuano asked. "Will they do it in a unified way? Will my president fight them or will he cave in? Will the Senate Democrats fight them or will they cave in? And those are questions that I won’t be able to answer for several months. Nobody will."

Despite the worries, the members of the Massachusetts delegation are lucky to still have their jobs, when so many of their Democratic colleagues don't. The delegation has lost some perks, though.

Primus showed us the congressman's underground "hideaway," one of the perks of being in the majority that they will have to give up. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)
Primus showed us the congressman's underground "hideaway," one of the perks of being in the majority that they will have to give up. (Lisa Tobin/WBUR)

Robert Primus, 41, Capuano's chief of staff, is a 20-year congressional veteran who worked his way up from a job in the mail room. Who better to take us for a walk underneath Capitol Hill, through the long, maze-like tunnels between buildings, to show us some of those delegate perks?

Along the way, he talked about political change on the Hill, driven by Democratic losses in the November election.

"Like a tornado, you know, for a town that has a warning, like this year there were warning signs," Primus said. "I mean, the Internet, the news, radio, TV — everyone — blogs, were saying that the Democrats were in for a tsunami, that there was a slaughter oncoming, and that we’d lose the House in a big way, and if we weren’t careful, we’d lose the Senate.

"And you saw that with some people. For some offices who had a notion that they wouldn’t be coming back, they continued to fight but there was also an understanding that, for the staff, maybe I should get my resume together, or maybe I should make sure that things are in place, just in case it happens."

Primus led us through security checkpoints and by underground artwork from high schools around the nation that hung on tunnel walls. He compared this year to the huge political shift that occurred in 1994, when Democrats gave up control of the House after 40 years.

"This current, soon-to-be majority, though they are ready to shake up and some of them are full of it — the Tea Party activists — I don’t see them coming in and really doing as much as they’re saying," he said. "The Contract with Americans in '94 wanted to abolish the Department of Energy, the Department of Education. There were a lot of things they wanted to do, which they didn’t do, but they sure scared a lot of people when you heard about it before they came on.

"This is not going to happen this year. As bad as it is — and it is bad — for me it comes up a little short compared to '94."

After twisting and turning through the seemingly endless tunnels — never telling us where we were going — Primus suddenly stopped. We were under the Capitol — and had reached the perk.

Ahead was a plain metal door, labeled simply "HT-54." It looked like it could have led to the congressional boiler room or laundry room. But instead, behind the door, was Capuano's hideaway: that's what it's called.

Primus took out his key and let us into a beautifully furnished room with leather furniture and richly-paneled walls. If it weren't for the lack of windows, one would never imagine it's underground. The hideaway was bestowed on Capuano with others assigned to a handful of House members in leadership positions.

"Notice, as you walk in, my staff has pretty much cleaned out most of the congressman’s belongings," Primus said. "So I think it’s just about ready, sadly enough, for the transfer."

It’s a huge change. The corridor outside feels like some sort of underground bunker or bomb shelter, but then you walk into this room.

"Well, this room shows there certainly are perks to being in the majority," Primus said. "And you know it was an honor for us to even have the opportunity to have this room. I know the congressman felt very lucky and honored to be given such a room. That’s why they call it the hideaway. You’re going from underground and the hustle and bustle of the Capitol, next thing you know you open a door you turn on some lights and you’re in a quiet space where we can conduct meetings or the member can go and review legislation as he does so often.

"We can come here and strategize over policy," Primus continued. "But it’s some place where you can hide away and focus in on the task at hand, when it needs to be done.

"I’ve worked for three members here in the House, including Mike, I’ve worked for a senator. I’ve never worked for someone who’s had a hideaway."

Considering all the important policy and political debates that took place just several floors up, on the floor of the House, what of significance happened in this hideaway?

Primus said nothing, but then reached back into history.

"The significance, the history behind it, you go back to the days of Truman, and there’s a place, the Board of Education, where he used to have his card games, that was his hideaway. It’s just the significance that we were given the honor to be the steward of this room. It will be passed along to someone else in the new majority, but for the last four years it’s been a lot of fun being able to have such a room."

It felt a little like losing the prime parking spot, or the key to the designer washroom — something you wonder if you'll ever get back. We turned out the lights and Primus locked the door.

On Wednesday, as the 112th Congress is sworn in, WBUR hears from Capuano and other members of the Massachusetts delegation about issues and what the power shift means for them, and our state.

This program aired on January 4, 2011.


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