Living Aloud on the Hill
Former Staffer Cathy Travis Recalls 25 Years
By Charlotte Wester
June 9, 2009
Recently retired Hill veteran Cathy Travis was never shy about meeting the mighty and powerful.
Travis was a newly hired staffer walking alone through the Capitol late one afternoon. Turning a corner, Travis says, she literally ran into President Ronald Reagan, who was about to address Congress.
“I took his hand and said: ‘I’m happy to meet you, but I disagree with your policy in Nicaragua’ — something mouthy like that,” she says.
That outspokenness shines through even today. After 25 years of working on Capitol Hill, Travis seems to know just about everyone. As she sits in the cafeteria of the Rayburn House Office Building, she greets staffers walking by.
But she is aware of the drawbacks of speaking her mind. “You can’t be mouthy on the Hill and not get in trouble,” she says. After putting in the years, though, Travis says she was able to get away with more freedom of speech “because I was old.”
Travis’ last job before retiring was as senior adviser and communications director for Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas). “I don’t have the illusion I’ll do anything more important than working for Congress,” she says.
But she won’t miss working on Capitol Hill, with its hectic hours and partisan tensions.
Day Into Night
A general Hill day, Travis says, started with 5:30 a.m. exercise, followed by e-mail correspondence, news stories and information updates before 8 a.m. Then she dressed and went to work.
“It’s a race to get through the day, and get through the piles of stuff.” Often, she stayed at the office until around 8 p.m. and worked a couple of hours at night.
“It’s an incredible amount of pressure and an incredibly backbreaking workload. But on the same hand: This is where you play hardball. If you can’t handle it, leave,” Travis says.
In fact, she has no regrets: “I know with certainty that during my time on the Hill I did the most important work I’ll ever do in my life, for the Members I’d worked for, for the people I’d talked to and for the problems I helped them solve.”
At the Beginning
In 1983, 23-year-old Travis arrived on Capitol Hill from Arkansas State University with a bachelor’s degree in public relations with an emphasis on political science. Initially, she worked for the then-Office of the Doorkeeper and as deputy press secretary for Rep. Bill Alexander (D-Ark.).
A Jonesboro, Ark., native, Travis first met “Uncle Bill” in her parents’ living room when she was 12. “I really thought politics was what I wanted to do,” Travis says. Alexander advised her to get involved in campaigns, and she started her career “cleaning bathrooms and licking envelopes — not simultaneously, obviously.”
At the Office of the Doorkeeper, Travis gave directions, informed Members about votes and answered questions from reporters.
Travis met Ortiz on the House floor. “He is the nicest man in Congress, and a wonderful man just to know,” Travis says. In 1990, Ortiz told her he was looking for a press secretary. “Are you interested?” he asked. “Hell yes,” she answered.
During her last years on Capitol Hill, Travis dealt more with policy, including advising the Democratic members of the Texas delegation.
Still working for Ortiz, Travis made her authorial debut, “Constitution Translated for Kids,” in 2006. She got the idea when she heard Ross Perot misquote the Constitution in the 1992 presidential debates.
“I said, somebody should just write the whole thing down at a fifth-grade level right next to the Constitution and be done with it. And a friend of mine ... said, ‘Cathy, I can’t think of any better person to do that than you.’”
Travis says writing a book for children was quite easy. “As a press secretary, I write at a fifth-grade level, because you don’t want to use big ol’ fancy words people might not know. You want them to hear your message.”
She had no problem putting herself in a 12-year-old’s shoes, Travis says. “I think I’ve been a child all my life,” she adds, laughing.
Travis had a friend’s son read the book. “He was really empowered with the knowledge,” she says, adding how pleased she was with the positive feedback she got on “Constitution Translated for Kids.”
“When you are 12, you want to know everything,” which is why she chose to target pre-teens, Travis says.
“I do have a place in my heart for young people.” She also worked as an intern coordinator on Capitol Hill and says she enjoyed working with young people.
A New Life
On New Year’s Eve 2007, Travis left Ortiz’s office to be a full-time author. Her schedule is still busy, but she can “read the whole newspaper, go for an exercise walk, do any shopping” and then write. She recently finished writing a novel about the 2000 election.
“What broke my heart was that the Supreme Court weighed in,” she says, “not that one guy won over the other.”
The Supreme Court “is not the body of government that resolves disputes of elections. Congress does that,” Travis said.
Her book supposes the Supreme Court did not get involved, the lower court decision stood and Al Gore won by 115 votes. The country then takes a different course. One of the biggest differences is that the country did not go to war in Iraq, Travis says.
Travis’ other manuscript, “Remember Who You Are,” is about the racial dynamics of a town that witnesses a white-on-black murder, she says.
The manuscript jumps between 1968 and 1998 and portrays a young girl, loosely based on Travis, who faces the murder once again as an adult. “It touches on painful topics.”
One change Travis noticed during her years on the Hill was that the political environment constantly has become tougher. In 1988, “people liked each other,” she says.
Since then, a “meaner, more partisan” House of Representatives has emerged and “went through the roof by 1994,” when the Republicans taking the majority planned to “burn down the House and rebuild it,” Travis says. “They basically tried to damage Members’ reputations.”
In March, 2001, Travis became an Independent. She became disenchanted with both parties after witnessing the Democrats’ suggestions on tax cuts, which she described as “slightly less immoral” than the Republicans’ plan. “I was like, is this a campaign pledge? Ours is slightly less immoral? I’m no longer with you,” she says.
Now, she enjoys her status while being a big fan of President Barack Obama.
Despite pursuing a career in politics, Travis says she never seriously thought about running for office herself.
“I never had the desire to put my name on a ballot and to step up and run for election, but I admire the people that do, ’cause it takes a lot of guts,” Travis said. “I have guts, but another kind of guts.”
To have a natural constituency, Travis would have needed to remain in Arkansas, but she was set on going to Washington, she says. She also opposed the “total lack of privacy.”
“People look at you, and whatever they find, good, bad or otherwise, people talk about you and some try to make it bad.”
In addition to the historic moments she experienced on Capitol Hill, Travis says, she also remembers many amusing stories about “human things.”
“I worked here for 25 years, so I imagine most everything I have learned, growing up on the Hill, is going to wind up, somehow, in books.”