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Politics

For House newbies, office hunt starts at the bottom

Gus Bilirakis had his dad to help, but like all House freshmen, he was at the mercy of the odds.

By WES ALLISON
Published November 18, 2006


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WASHINGTON - They started at the top, in his father's airy, spacious office, with its stunning view of the U.S. Capitol, and set off to find bottom.

The trick was finding the best that bottom had to offer. But compared to other freshmen wandering the halls of the U.S. House office buildings, looking for the perfect suite among the scraps still left for them, Rep.-elect Gus Bilirakis had a few secret weapons:

Some of his dad's most experienced staffers. And his mom.

* * *

No matter what party, no matter how wide their victory, new members of Congress all start at the same place: last. Nowhere is this more evident than in the office where they will spend the next two years.

If re-elected, they can move up each term to more space, a sweeter view, and better locations in the sprawling House office buildings across Independence Avenue from the Capitol. After two dozen years, retiring Rep. Mike Bilirakis, 76, a Republican from Tarpon Springs, had worked his way to the top, a suite on the fourth floor of the Rayburn building with picture windows overlooking the south side of the Capitol dome.

"It took us 22 years to get this office," his wife, Evelyn, said Thursday afternoon.

Freshmen get what sitting members don't want, through a lottery. The list of offices available to them came out Thursday, just a day before they had to pick, and Mrs. Bilirakis and some of her husband's top aides - executive assistant Jackie Troy, scheduler Doug Menorca, legislative assistant James Robertson and chief of staff Rebecca Hyder - were determined to find the best they could for the congressman's son, Gus, 43, who is taking his dad's seat.

There was much to consider: Size, natural light, view. Proximity to hearing rooms, the Metro and the House floor.

When the buzzer rings to call a vote, members have 15 minutes to get there. Those in the outer reaches have to hustle.

They gathered in the senior Bilirakis' office to plot strategy and pore over the list. One of the open ones was his first office, back when he joined Congress in 1983. It's on the back side of the Cannon building, about as far from the Capitol as possible.

"Let's look at that, for sentimental reasons," said Liz Hittos, Gus Bilirakis' deputy campaign manager and law partner from Clearwater.

"It's close to the Metro," Mrs. Bilirakis said, "but it's a long way to vote."

They looked at the other 50 options. They made a few notes. They gathered their gear - maps, a tape measure, a pad for sketching layouts and a digital camera to document what they saw for Gus Bilirakis, who was tied up in orientation meetings.

After touring a few uninspiring choices on the ground floor of the Longworth House Office Building, the group landed at Suite 1022. It boasted more than 1,000 square feet, with room for seven desks in the legislative office and a nice office for the member.

Menorca snapped away with his camera while Troy took notes and fretted about where the copier, the printers and other equipment might go. When they were finished, Menorca made a note on his list. "Ten-twenty-two. That's the best one yet."

But Mom had a question: "How far would he have to walk?"

Menorca showed her the map.

"That's too far!" Mrs. Bilirakis said. "Too far!"

* * *

Gus Bilirakis got a break from his meetings and met the team at Longworth 1130. It was small, just 842 square feet, but had bright red drapes and was due for new carpet. It was also just an elevator ride from the Starbucks in the basement, and close to the exit.

"This is nice," Bilirakis said. "Very nice." He turned to a group of workers. "Am I interrupting anyone if I go in there?" he asked.

His team checked their list and headed toward the Cannon building, a tad farther from the Capitol, home to many junior members. "Gus," his mom told him, "you need to think about location."

"I'll take anything," he said. "I'm just happy to be here."

* * *

Cannon House Office Building 415. Its occupant, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, greeted them, congratulating Bilirakis.

"Well, thanks for stopping by," McCaul said. "I actually got a meeting on the Senate side."

"Oh, no, go ahead," Bilirakis said. "We're just here to look at your office."

* * *

By Thursday evening, Bilirakis' team had scouted 17 offices. Most were small, a cramped hodgepodge of cluttered desks, of interns and junior staffers wedged into closets and former bathrooms, of computer equipment and copiers piled into any available nook.

"Well, first term," Mrs. Bilirakis said as they ended the hunt. "That's just the way it is."

* * *

At 9 a.m. Friday, a large committee room was packed with aides and freshmen lawmakers, waiting to pick a number, 1 through 49, with one drawing first. Although the freshman class numbers 54, two returning members got earlier picks, and candidates in contested races involving incumbents - who already have offices - weren't part of the lottery.

The clerk of the House drew for Florida's 13th District, which is contested between two newcomers, Democrat Christine Jennings and Republican Vern Buchanan. She drew 39. Jennings and a staffer for Buchanan would join a member of the clerk's staff to look at offices, and they agreed to pick one in Longworth. They would get the last one.

With Gus Bilirakis in yet another meeting, his new chief of staff, Rebecca Hyder - who is his father's outgoing chief of staff - drew for him. Thirty-five.

She winced. "At least I didn't draw 49."

* * *

The picking started at 1 p.m.

Rep.-elect Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, had the best draw of the five new Floridians, and she chose the Cannon office that John F. Kennedy held 60 years ago, when he was a House member from Massachusetts.

Bilirakis' top choices disappeared like dew in August as the freshmen ahead of him picked. But it was here that his staff's diligence would pay off: That morning, they had toured 27 offices to build a long list of contingencies.

As his turn neared, Bilirakis huddled with Hyder. It was down to a fifth-floor office in Cannon with lots of space but lousy elevator service, a hike from the Capitol; and the office on the sixth floor of Longworth his staff had toured first thing that morning. Suite 1630.

He chose 1630. The staff will be knee to knee. The view is of a gravel roof a couple of floors down; in the near distance is a wall. The windows, thankfully, are small.

But it is convenient, close to the elevators leading to the exit on Independence Avenue, making for a short walk to vote. His mom would be pleased. Constituents can find it easily. And Bilirakis didn't mind the size, 862 square feet.

"So it's small," he said cheerfully. His driver's license lists him as 5-foot-5. "I'm small. I don't need anything big."

Times staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

[Last modified November 18, 2006, 05:38:43]


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