Kathleen Connor remembers vividly when she realized the severity of the coronavirus outbreak. It was March 5, and she had just picked up her daughter, Elizabeth, who was returning home from Wake Forest University for spring break, at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
“In the car, WTOP announced that Montgomery County had its first case,” recalls Connor, the director of U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin’s district office in Rockville. “I literally called the congressman from the car and then called the county health officer. I set up a phone call that night at probably 9 p.m. between Jamie and
Dr. [Travis] Gayles.”
The steady drumbeat of phone calls Connor and her staff of six fielded before the pandemic, often from people annoyed about a missing Social Security check or frustrated by an issue with the IRS, quickly turned into an unrelenting barrage of conversations with individuals who were downright scared and didn’t know where else to turn. Can you help me get my child back to America from overseas? Where can I get tested for the virus? How can I obtain a mask?
Connor’s job, which is typically busier than a 9-to-5 one, transformed into a seven-days-a-week test of physical endurance and mental stamina. The oldest of her three children, William, likes to guess what percentage of a post-dinner TV show she’ll make it through before dozing off in the family room of their Takoma Park home. The exhaustion is understandable: By late April, the office had opened more than 650 “cases” with the federal and county governments—each question or request that’s received is a case—compared with 250 for the same six-week period in 2019.
“She models the attitude that no job is too big for us to go after, and no job is too small for us to spend our time on,” says Raskin, a Democrat elected to the District 8 seat in 2016. “Kathleen has always had a zealous personal work ethic. She’s turned her home basically into our new district office. She continues to go into the office in the evenings. Sometimes she will be in the office at 9 or 10 p.m. talking to an angst-ridden resident of a nursing home or Leisure World who need someone to talk to. Everybody’s phone calls are being answered within a couple of hours, which is astounding to my colleagues in the House, that we have that kind of response.”
Connor’s role essentially is to help constituents navigate the byzantine maze of the federal government. She came to Washington, D.C., in 1985 as a presidential management fellow with the Treasury Department, and then worked for the Federal Reserve. In 2000, she left the workforce to raise her three kids and volunteer at the Manna Food Center and other organizations. When her middle child, Jack, now 24, was a kindergartner, he befriended Raskin’s son, Tommy, at school. That was the start of a friendship between the two families that strengthened when Connor volunteered for Raskin’s congressional campaign. She officially started her current job when he took office in January 2017.
“I know it sounds hokey, but I love who Jamie is and what he stands for,” says Connor, 58. “When I’m out in the community with him, he’s as interested in a second grader as the elderly. He doesn’t care if a person is high-powered or has a lot of money; he really cares about everybody and making their life better.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Susan Ingram knew she had a problem. The president of Gaithersburg-based Community Support Services desperately needed personal protective equipment for employees at the facilities the nonprofit runs for people with developmental disabilities.
“We have some very vulnerable children who have suppressed immune systems,” she says. “We got our first positive case and were terrified. We didn’t have equipment for staff, and they didn’t want to work if they weren’t protected, of course. I reached out to Kathleen and she made some magical connections. She’s not only very caring but also efficient. She put us in touch with an organization called Masks for America, who were making a run down from New York. We got 500 masks that allowed us to be around COVID-positive people safely. What she did for us could well have saved lives.”
During the past several months, the calls received by Connor and her colleagues have become more personal. “For the first time, I cried with a constituent on the phone,” she says. “A mom who was trying to get her son home from Peru. She thought he was on a flight and he was not. He was 24, and I have a 24-year-old son, also. She really questioned whether he was going to get home. It had been a long day, so we cried together. I’m happy to say he did get home and she sent me a picture of him.”
When Pam Stone contacted Connor, she didn’t know if her daughter Adina Rombro, a student at Barnard College just beginning a semester abroad in Peru, would make it back to Silver Spring. The South American country had halted commercial flights in an attempt to control the spread of the virus. Connor and Raskin made daily calls to the State Department until they were able to get Rombro (and other District 8 constituents) a seat on a charter flight home.
“[Kathleen] was so polite and professional and all the things you could hope for,” Stone says. “She was also warm and reassuring, and made me really feel like I had a real connection in my congressman’s office. A real-life human being really paying attention to my situation.”