Last days for un-helmed California congressional district

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 14, 2012 

— Life goes on within and without the San Joaquin Valley’s phantom congressional office.

A fast-shrinking staff still answers the phones. Constituents are still served. The doors remain technically open for business, both on the fourth floor of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill and in three Valley district offices.

But the resignation of former congressman Dennis Cardoza one month ago also has left both subtle and obvious changes. Start with how the phones are answered.

“Office of the 18th Congressional District of California,” a staffer says, over and over again.

The plaque outside Cardoza’s former House office likewise omits the name of the man who represented a San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced and Fresno county district since January 2003. The office now belongs, the plaque clarifies, to the congressional district. “It’s now become the non-partisan office for the congressional district,” Salley Wood , a spokesperson for the Clerk of the House’s office, said Friday. “You don’t want the constituents to be un-served.”

Cardoza announced his retirement last October, after redistricting essentially threw him into the same district as Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, a long-time ally. Citing family needs, Cardoza then unexpectedly stepped down several months early in August. He is now with the firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, for whom he anticipates splitting his time between Sacramento and Washington, D.C..

“I’m in the process of developing new clients for the firm, as well as servicing the firm’s existing clients,” Cardoza said Friday.

Identified as a consultant, Cardoza is not permitted to lobby his former House colleagues for a year, but he can lobby state legislators and approach federal executive branch officials. He said he spent much of August in Sacramento, where he formerly served as a state legislator. Manatt’s myriad clients in Sacramento range from Xerox and Intel to Los Angeles County, disclosure records show, though the available records don’t specify with whom Cardoza is working.

In Cardoza’s new Washington office about 12 blocks from the Capitol, he’s been taking care of logistics and administrative details, like getting his BlackBerry set up.

Cardoza’s former staffers on Capitol Hill can continue constituent casework and initiate new cases -- tracking Social Security checks, securing veterans’ benefits and the like. They also can answer factual questions about legislation, so long as they don’t express partisan views. On Friday, for instance, staffers could tell callers the House had just approved a bill called the “No More Solyndras Act” on a 245-161 margin, but they could not characterize the measure as a Republican election-year gambit that’s considered dead on arrival in the Senate.

Five staffers now appear to be working in Cardoza’s D.C. office, in addition to staffers still onboard at the Modesto, Merced and Stockton offices. This is roughly half of the full-time staffing complement for a congressional office.

Consequently, some of Cardoza’s former colleagues are stepping in to pick up the slack.

“I’m certainly helping out, making sure needs are being met,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, said Friday.

As an example, Denham said, military academy applicants and hopefuls need to work closely with the congressional offices responsible for nominations, and the time is ripe. House members usually set a Nov. 1 deadline for nomination packets and often hold academy information sessions in the fall.

In a similar vein, University of California at Merced officials recently went to Costa’s office to check on the status of a grant application. This made sense for several reasons: Cardoza was gone, and Costa is currently running for reelection in a newly redrawn and re-numbered district that includes Cardoza’s old Merced stomping grounds, as well as Madera and part of Fresno County.

Denham recalled that he and Cardoza used to chat on the House floor during votes; the congressman’s absence has been felt there, too. The House has voted about two dozen times since Cardoza’s Aug. 15 resignation, on issues ranging from public transit security to continued funding of federal agencies for the next six months. None of the outcomes, though, would have turned on a single vote.

“It’s freeing that you don’t have to run to the floor all day to vote, especially when it’s just a procedural vote,” Cardoza said.

Email: mdoyle@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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