By Valerie Battaglia
Weaving around the corner, I was dwarfed by the white granite statues framing the enormous bronze doors of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Complex.
“My God,” I said as I giddily turned toward my significant other, my hands clasped together in awe. “Can you imagine walking up to this building every day to go to work?”
Although I don’t have an office in the Capitol, I was there for training. I work as a constituent services advisor for Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (D-165), which led me to Harrisburg to learn the ins-and-outs of local government alongside a group of new hires on Oct. 1 and Oct. 2.
When the Amtrak screeched to a stop as it arrived at the empty, dimly lit Harrisburg Station around 10:00 p.m., I couldn’t help but notice how it starkly contrasted with Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.
“Don’t expect to see any skyscrapers here,” said my Uber driver, after I noted how different Harrisburg’s architecture is from Philadelphia’s. “We don’t have a whole lot of infrastructure in our city.”
In Philadelphia, overly saturated neon signs loom over pedestrians and inconsistent traffic flows well into the evening, but in Harrisburg, I could hear a pin-drop after sunset. There were hardly any lights, pedestrians or cars in the street the evening I arrived. Vacant storefronts with current autumn advertisements served as the only evidence that the city wasn’t completely abandoned.
The following morning, I strolled through Harrisburg’s still-empty streets for my first day of training in the Capitol. There’s no dress code unless the House and Senate are in session, yet I still went out of my way to wear a black suit with a white ruffled top that spilled over the lapel.
Over the course of two days, I was introduced to members of the Democratic Caucus from various offices: outreach, communications, printing, policy research, information technology, ethics, and so forth. Their respective responsibilities are pieces of the puzzle that make up our state government, each serving a vital role for our state representatives, senators, governor, and residents.
As residents of the Commonwealth, we seldom consider what goes into being a legislator. It’s easy to assume our government officials single-handedly write every social media post, conduct policy research and schedule all of their events. While our legislators do dabble in communications, research, and outreach, they also have staff in both the Capitol and their district offices that maintain the cogs in the well-greased machine powering our state government.
In between each training session, I mingled with fellow trainees and bonded over our experiences. Most of the trainees had been hired within the last month and took on the position due to their love for politics or helping others. Like me, many of them had never worked in a bureaucratic position.
Out of our group of nine, only one of us came to training with prior bureaucratic experiences. She was about two decades older than the rest of us 20-something year olds and a mother of two whose youngest was now in college.
“I’m so glad I wore my flats this time,” she said as we trekked over the uneven, rust-colored tiles of the East Wing Rotunda. “When I came here with my state representative before, I made the mistake of wearing heels – and he’s not too big on elevators, either. Flats are a must in the Capitol.”
This wasn’t her first time in the Capitol, nor was it her first time working with a political figure. After obtaining her master’s degree, she interned at the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. during the Clinton administration.
She met President Bill Clinton and members of his staff, but she didn’t go very much into detail about what her work entailed; perhaps it was confidential.
“Pennsylvania’s Capitol is much more green than the U.S. Capitol,” she noted as we entered the Irvis Office Building. “It’s also less modern.”
While the rest of the group may not have the same background working in politics, all of us had similar experiences in our current roles as constituent service advisors. We’ve helped constituents obtain their SEPTA Senior Key Passes, file for their unclaimed property from the Pennsylvania Department of Treasury, and report a PennDOT issue. In fact, 80 percent of the issues handled by state government offices are PennDOT related, according to our training advisor.
Coming from districts within Philadelphia, Montgomery, Lancaster, and Delaware counties, some of the trainees routinely faced more niche issues, such as helping constituents apply for medical marijuana cards from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, as well as Medicare/Medicaid insurance, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or Veteran’s Services, depending on the area’s demographics.
The trainees from Montgomery and Lancaster counties were intrigued that some of us had constituents who came in for medical marijuana card registration. In my own experience, constituents often come to us as a last resort for their registration. The process of obtaining a medical marijuana card from the Pennsylvania Department of Health can be tricky, especially for those who aren’t as tech savvy and struggle with the online application.
I’ve had individuals come into our district office worried they’d be turned away because of the stigma that still surrounds the medical marijuana industry. Other individuals were so thrilled that I could help them register, they brought me fresh-cut roses as a thank you.
While medical marijuana card issues are a relatively uncommon occurrence in my district, trainees from the Philadelphia area said it was something their office assisted with regularly. Some legislators from Philadelphia even hold patient registration events.
Of course, fresh-cut roses aren’t a relatively common occurrence, either. Sure, constituents occasionally mail a “thank you” card to our district offices or call to show their appreciation, but we generally see people in their most desperate hour. I’ve assisted individuals who couldn’t get proper senior living assistance, health coverage, or housing.
As a result, constituents sometimes come into our offices teary-eyed or shouting because they’ve been misunderstood by everyone else they’ve reached out to for help. Our goal isn’t to simply solve their problem; we’re also a shoulder to cry on.
Language barriers are another obstacle we routinely face. A husband and wife from Greece came into my district’s office a few weeks ago for a handicap license plate, but weren’t sure how to phrase it in English. At first, my coworkers thought they were asking for handicap placards, so the husband started shouting in Greek for the license plate.
My mother’s side of the family is 100 percent Greek, so I grew up in a household where the language was constantly spoken around me, whether it was my mother and aunt trying to communicate privately or my mother on the phone with one of her friends who lived overseas.
I may not speak fluent Greek, but years of hearing it has made it easy for me to decipher the root of the message. As soon as I heard the constituent shouting, I knew that he was asking for a handicap license plate and had no trouble assisting him and his wife.
During our lunch break on the final day of training, we were given a tour of the Capitol’s House, Senate, and Supreme Court Chambers inside of the Main Rotunda.
Before we entered the chambers, our tour guide gave us background on the Capitol’s history.
“The Capitol Building we’re in now isn’t the original Capitol Building,” she explained. “Hills Capitol was Pennsylvania’s Capitol from 1822 until 1897, when it was destroyed in a fire.”
The current building, Huston Capitol, was constructed in 1902 at the price of $13 million, the tour guide said, adding, “Today, it is priceless.”
The three-ton gilded bronze statue adorning the 272-foot dome of the Capitol Building is a woman named “Common Wealth” who stands for justice and mercy.
Mosaic and marabian tiles decorate the Main Rotunda with imagery that dates back to colonial Pennsylvania, including industries, early forms of transportation and wildlife.
In the Senate and House Chambers, gold practically drips from the ceiling onto desks, which were illuminated under massive chandeliers that glistened with a century’s worth of history.
“Anyone can visit and watch while the Senate and House are in session,” the tour guide said as we stood from the rows of seats that were suspended a story above the air, our jaws agape in wonder.
All three chambers are decorated in murals, most of which were done by a woman named Violet Oakley between 1902 to 1927, our tour guide explained.
“She was the first woman to receive a large commission for her work in our Capitol,” she added.
Although Oakley’s artwork represents the history of Pennsylvania, it symbolizes much more in hindsight. In my eyes, her work as a female artist during the cusp of the 20th century is a spoke in the wheel of women’s empowerment.
By the end of the training, I found myself with a far more comprehensive understanding of how our state functions and a newfound appreciation for Pennsylvania’s government. There are so many stagehands behind the curtain of our state’s performance that even I wasn’t fully aware of after working in a legislative office for five months.
Quiet and humble Harrisburg provides bureaucrats and residents alike a front row seat to Pennsylvania’s democracy. It’s a city that embraces our state’s history while paving the way for our future. Even if you take a two-hour joyride out to Harrisburg simply to visit the Pennsylvania State Capitol, it’s well worth it.
Contact Valerie Battaglia at email@example.com