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.
"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.
Each office representing city, state, county or federal political representatives 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 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 that 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 staff worker in Los Angeles Councilman Michael Woo's office.
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.
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."
'Big Five' Agencies
Henry Lozano, a senior staff member in the office of Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles), 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.
Most offices reported receiving 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 staff members. Most said they work at least 60 hours a week.
Salaries for political aides vary according to experience and office budget, but pay generally starts at about $15,000. City employees can go as high as $36,000 and state employees 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 staff members suddenly found themselves scattered like so much political dust in the wind.