Posted on January 13, 2010
As I drove my wife back to her office after the funeral of my good friend Jeff Becker, a bumper sticker on the car in front of me caught my attention. “What if the hokey-pokey is what it is all about?”
The thought made me laugh, which is nice, because on Friday, I will be attending the funeral of another friend who died suddenly, unexpectedly, and all too soon.
I am not sure if Paula Nowakowski liked the hokey-pokey or not, but my guess is, as a good Polish girl, she saw her fair share of polkas in her time.
Paula, who was House Minority Leader John Boehner’s chief of staff and close confidant, died of a heart attack over the weekend. Her death sent shock waves around Capitol Hill, because, well, you just never expected Paula to be anywhere else other than in the trenches, fighting the good fight on behalf of the American people.
Paula dedicated her life to public service. And she dedicated her life to making the Congress as an institution work.
Congress is not held in high esteem right now. People outside the beltway don’t like partisanship. They hate it when members of Congress bicker and fight and violently disagree.
But, when Congress does come together and reach agreements, people don’t like that either.
People seem to hate it when Congress works and they hate it when Congress doesn’t work.
And conservatives, especially tea-party conservatives, seem to be the most vocal in holding both ideas in their heads at exactly the same time.
Paula Nowakowski was no shrinking violent, and she was no moderate. She was a hard-nosed conservative who held dear the principles and beliefs of the conservative movement.
But she wasn’t content to complain from the sidelines. It wasn’t sufficient for her to curse the darkness. She worked hard to light up the Congress.
Paula wasn’t cynical about politics, but she wasn’t overly sentimental about it either. She had a sharp wit. When things were especially interesting to her, they were “delicious”.
What I most liked about Paula was that she held on to her principles and her beliefs, but also believed in our system of government. And how our system works (and all democracies for that matter) is that you don’t always get your way. Sometimes you and sometimes you lose, but you also keep pushing forward.
When John Boehner lost as Conference Chairman, neither Paula nor Boehner threw in the towel and cried in their beer. Paula joined Boehner at the Education and Labor Committee, and they got to work.
Both Boehner and Paula did a good job at the Committee. They passed solid legislation, some bipartisan, some, not so bipartisan. They kept the heat on Big Labor corruption, but they also developed a good working relationship with their Democratic counterparts.
It wasn’t always the most exciting work, but it moved the ball forward.
Boehner’s track record at the Committee made him the choice of his colleagues when he decided to challenge Roy Blunt for the Majority Leader job when it opened up in 2005. He won, because his colleagues thought he could get the job done. But he wouldn’t have been able to do it without Paula.
Paula always worked hard. She hated being in the minority. She wanted to get Republicans back in control of the House. And even in the toughest days for the GOP, following the Obama victory in 2008, she was convinced the Republicans would get it back soon.
Capitol Hill is full of staffers like Paula who are loyal to their bosses and loyal to their principles. Without them, the legislative process would grind to a halt. Without them, our democracy would fall apart.
The legislative process can be very frustrating. Legislators never get it completely right. They make too many compromises. They make too many deals. But unless someone comes up with a better way to do things, outside of some form of fascism or monarchy, then we are stuck with democracy, warts and all.
Paula was never satisfied with the status quo, and she would never quit when it came to making this country a better place to live. It is hard for me to imagine the Capitol without her.