"I’m not going to give you some expose."
I chuckled. In 10 years of working with Sylvia Warner, I’ve known the recently retired press secretary of U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers to be a few things: Professional. Deadline-sensitive. Accessible.
A cynic? A Deep Throat on the "inside dirt?"
There would be no juicy "tell-all" about mid-Michigan’s Republican congressman from Brighton for me, but I didn’t expect one.
Instead, Warner, 68, gave me what I asked for: Her sincere opinion on how Congress worked. Her most satisfying moment working for Rogers. And why, in her late ’50s, the long-time Greenville resident picked up and moved to Washington as a congressional staffer in 2001, a career choice typically reserved for wide-eyed 20-somethings fresh out of college.
She ticked off the easy stuff first.
Yes, Washington moves slowly, she said. Yes, it’s a frustrating system to watch. But it works. Congress is a deliberative body made of two chambers, so hasty policy changes aren’t jammed into law.
It’s better to have something done right later than have something done wrong tomorrow, Warner said.
Warner’s greatest moments from Capitol Hill? They certainly weren’t ripped out of the headlines. Rogers’ vote against President Barack Obama’s health care law? Going to war in Iraq or Afghanistan? Nope.
Warner relished Rogers’ behind-the-scenes policy work, where the congressman put in countless hours but got little credit — like his efforts on a chronic pain management bill or his numerous, unpublicized visits to Iraq or Afghanistan as a U.S. House Intelligence Committee member.
Remember when Canada was trucking tons of garbage into a southeast Michigan landfill? Warner credits Rogers for getting the ball rolling before she said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow swooped in and adopted the issue.
But how did Warner find herself working on these issues in the first place?
How did the 18-year Greenville Daily News editor and 25-year local newspaper veteran go from shadowing greenhorn journalists on traffic wrecks to hitching her wagon to a politician who won his seat by 111 votes in 2001? The first was a stable career choice. The second was not.
Going into the 2000 election cycle, Warner was the lead writer for the Michigan Senate Majority Communications office. The job kept her close to her family, and she enjoyed the work.
Four years prior, in 1996, Warner had made her own run for political office, finishing fourth in a competitive, eight-person GOP primary in what was then the 93rd state House seat.
But Warner said she saw something in Rogers when she wrote his press releases in the state Senate.
To her, Rogers was interested in trying to do something to improve lives. He was genuine. She believed in him.
She remembers in the late ’90s when then-state Sen. Rogers championed the crackdown of Internet predators. At the time, the issue was widely unknown. Most people were just starting to understand "the Internet." The dangers to young boys and girls weren’t fully appreciated.
During a Lansing Public Library visit with Rogers, she gasped as the Michigan State Police’s only cyber investigator pulled down a random computer’s history cue and kiddy porn popped up on the screen.
Shortly thereafter, then-Wayne County Sheriff Robert Ficano and his cyber-crime team created a phony Internet profile for a 14-year-old girl during a well-attended press conference. Within minutes, an unknown man was trying to talk to "her" in a chat room. This time, reporters gasped.
Due, in part, to Rogers’ efforts, the state adopted specific Internet crime laws.
"I remembered a piece of political advice I received from someone who I really trust," Warner told me. "The person told me, ’Find the good ones and stick with them.’" That’s what Warner did. Given a chance to work on Rogers’ congressional campaign, Warner went all-in, even though a Rogers victory was far from a sure thing.
And when Rogers won, Warner had a high-level communications post waiting for her in state Legislature . . . but Rogers wanted her in D.C.
While a Virginia native, Warner’s grandchildren were in mid-Michigan. Was it really the right time in her life to staff a freshman congressman in a foreign city?
The answer was yes.
To her, it wasn’t about climbing some career ladder or because she needed a job. Warner said she truly believed Rogers was destined for great things, and she wanted to lend a hand.
At Warner’s retirement gathering last month, Rogers said his retired press secretary did more than that. He, too, didn’t delve into any gory expose, just genuine appreciation for "one of the best" who detoured her own career to help his.
And maybe a couple of tears, too.
(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)