Ivan Adler speaks to the Wall Street Journal about one of the Senate’s longest-running and well-known receptionists: ‘Mrs. O’.
By Kristina Peterson | February 8, 2015
WASHINGTON—Capitol Hill is a jungle of youth and ambition, where whippersnapper staffers start one job already eyeing the next.
Then there is Mrs. O.
In 1987, Barbara O’Malley —known throughout Senate offices as Mrs. O—joined the staff of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D., Md.) as her receptionist. Nearly three decades later, at the age of 87, she is still answering the senator’s phones and keeping the Senate’s other inhabitants in line.
Mrs. O is no stranger to political aspirations. Her son Martin, until recently the Maryland governor, is considered a potential Democratic 2016 presidential candidate. But her own popularity in an environment fed on political calculations and arm-twisting is fueled instead by loyalty and Spritz cookies.
Mrs. O’Malley has greeted, trained, baked for and even scolded some of the hundreds of lawmakers and constituents who pass by her desk.
“She’s so funny—and she’s tough,” said retired Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D., W.Va.), who visited Mrs. O’Malley every day he was in Washington. “When she thinks the conversation has gone on too long, she goes, ‘Go to your office and do some work,’ ” he said.
From her perch on the Hart Senate Office Building’s fifth floor, Mrs. O’Malley has become perhaps the most well-known octogenarian on Capitol Hill never elected to office. The Senate has two 81-year-old lawmakers and three 80-year-olds.
“I will sometimes run into U.S. senators who I’ve never met before, but they already know who my mom is,” said former Gov. O’Malley.
Statistically speaking, Mrs. O is an anomaly on Capitol Hill by virtue of both her age and longevity in a role that usually serves as a steppingstone for the 20-somethings who populate the place.
The median age of Senate staffers is 29, according to a LegiStorm analysis. Mrs. O’Malley’s 27 years to date on the job are more than nine times the average experience of other Senate receptionists and staff assistants. She is almost certainly the only Senate receptionist to have six children,15 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“She probably has the record for the longest tenure of any receptionist on Capitol Hill,” said Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group who specializes in recruiting congressional staffers to downtown lobbying shops. “It’s incredibly unusual because that is a starter position. Most people stay in there until they find the next step up and she’s never worried about that.”
Instead of moving up, Mrs. O’Malley has instead extended her influence out. She has trained generations of staffers, estimated at somewhere between 50 and 75 aides who are now dispersed among the hallways of Capitol Hill and offices of downtown Washington.
Chung Shek began his Hill career in 2003, as a staff assistant working with Mrs. O’Malley, dueling over who could answer the most phone calls. Mr. Shek later became the office’s director of operations, a position that made him Mrs. O’Malley’s supervisor, at least on paper.
“But in my perspective, she was always my supervisor,” he said. “You don’t mess with Mrs. O. Beside Sen. Mikulski, Mrs. O is the one you always want to keep happy,” said Mr. Shek, now the chief clerk of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Lawmakers also know better than to cross Mrs. O’Malley, whose stern looks are followed without question when many stop in for their daily chats.
“You can tell when she’s had enough of both me and Rockefeller, she’ll point and say get to your office,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D., N.D.)