Politico: Democrats’ little-known fact finders

By Patrick O’Connor

The House speaker’s office churns out reams of paper every day — from political press releases and “fact sheets” to more mundane summaries of legislation on the floor.

Much of it bears the stamp of two little-known longtime aides, Margaret Capron and Kit Judge, who have each devoted the better part of two decades to helping House Democrats distill complex policy proposals into easy-to-digest talking points.

Since the late 1980s, the two have spent their under-the-radar careers within earshot of party leaders.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praises the duo for “the breadth of their knowledge and their commitment to public service,” adding, “They are simply indispensable to the efforts of the Democratic Caucus.”

Their previous boss, former Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, calls Capron and Judge “the quintessential examples of House staffers who are also great public servants.”

Capitol Hill is a jumble of acronyms, watchwords and mind-bending policy prescriptions. During their tenure in the House, Capron and Judge have become experts at translating the arcane for members, staff and the congressional press corps.

They have also become go-to resources for anyone looking for more information.

Need to know how many members of President George W. Bush’s transition team at the Department of Energy worked in the energy industry? Call Capron or Judge (the answer is 31 of 48).

Or how ’bout the number of jobs that could be created in Michigan by higher fuel efficiency standards? Capron and Judge have an answer (7,400 in 2020, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists).

The pair gathers facts like the squirrels on Capitol Hill collect nuts for winter.

And their combined experience makes them great guides for a generation of younger aides who are experiencing life in the majority for the first time.

“They are really the institutional memory for the staff,” said Brendan Daly, the speaker’s communications director.

Tucked away in adjoining offices on the fourth floor of the Capitol, the pair has remarkable autonomy.

Capron and Judge work closely with committee staff, the speaker’s policy aides and Daly’s press team to issue research that will be helpful in upcoming debates.

This could mean compiling employment and transportation statistics ahead of a debate on an economic stimulus package, or scrambling through the night to distill the main components of a complex $700 billion Wall Street rescue package hours after negotiators signed off on the final deal.

Capron and Judge work closely with Daly to craft background material for members and other press staff. One of the two — usually Capron — briefs press secretaries each week during the Democrats’ regular communications meeting. And Daly signs off on fact sheets that will be distributed to the press.

“This is where policy and politics cross over,” Capron said.

Capron and Judge honed their policy expertise under Dick Conlon, a former newspaperman who ran the Democratic Study Group until his death in 1988.

Conlon presided over a team of 10 or so writers who produced regular policy papers to help members and staff track legislation, including weekly legislative updates that mirror Congressional Quarterly’s House Action Reports. He challenged his team to be comprehensive, clear and concise — and as objective as possible.

“It was a great place to learn to research and write and get to the heart of an issue,” Judge said. “If you didn’t know something, you learned where to find it.”

That mandate remains. Capron and Judge work hard translating complicated policy issues for press secretaries and, in turn, the press, helping Democrats push their political objectives.

The two stayed at the DSG after Scott Lilly took over for Conlon. “They were two of my mainstays,” Lilly said.

But Republicans scrapped the Study Group’s budget shortly after they took power in 1995. So Gephardt and his then-chief of staff Tom O’Donnell adopted Lilly and his two prized writers to keep producing briefings for the members and staff as part of the leader’s office.

“They did a great job,” O’Donnell said. “It was a pretty seamless transition.”

This was still the era of more substantive debate, before talking points and hyper-partisanship grew to dominate discourse between the parties, so Capron, Judge and Lilly had more latitude to dig deeper into the policy debates of the day.

“There was quite an appetite for long-term, substantive work,” Lilly said.

Those years of research are paying off today, because both have deep understandings of their respective areas of expertise. And they know what worked — and didn’t — in past debates on similar subjects.

Both women were reared in politics.

Judge, who was born in Indiana, knocked on her first door when she was 7. “I was raised to do this,” she said. Capron’s father was an economic adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Judge came to Capitol Hill right after graduating from Earlham College in Indiana. Capron took a more roundabout route, teaching at a high school about 50 miles outside Nairobi, Kenya, as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. She also taught at a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota.

After years of working together, they split their duties pretty well, with Judge handling tax policy, energy issues and most components of the economy and Capron doing health care, education and Iraq.

Both praise Gephardt and Pelosi for seeing the need to dig deep on policy issues to help equip Democrats for the nonstop debate on Capitol Hill.

“She’s a very substantive person,” Capron said of the speaker. “She loves getting into the weeds.”

In turn, Pelosi is grateful she has so much experience to help Democrats across the Capitol make their points more clearly. “Their excellent analysis is used by members, staff and the press, and is respected for its accuracy, relevance and timeliness,” she said.

“It helps that all of us have been working here for a long time now,” Capron said.

Added Judge: “We could not have done this if we didn’t get along.”

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