Get to know D.C. with our daily newsletter
We dive deep on the day’s biggest story and share links to everything you need to know.
When civic activist Dorothy Brizill met John Simmons, aide to Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.) at the Rayburn Building last June, she had no idea what to expect.
“I remember thinking, ‘Who is this young guy with perfectly coiffed hair?,’” says Brizill, describing her first encounter with Simmons, whose boss runs the D.C. appropriations subcommittee, a group with make-or-break power over District affairs.
Other congressional staffers—Ted Rebarber, then an aide to Wisconsin Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.), Jane Fortson, aide to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), along with subcommittee aide Mike Fuchette and Migo Miconi, director of the D.C. appropriations subcommittee—were also present for the meeting. But to Brizill’s eye, Simmons was the HWMIC (Head White Man In Charge) and everyone knew it.
Simmons began a discussion of the District’s fiscal 1996 budget and quickly moved to a list of 40 items he expected to be tagged onto the final budget legislation. The 40 proposed amendments went beyond the budget and into fundamental policy, including demolishing the city’s rent-control law, establishing charter schools, and decreasing the salaries for the 11-member D.C. Board of Education. Brizill was flabbergasted. It wasn’t that she didn’t think some of the things Simmons was proposing needed to be done, but in politics “it’s not what you do but the way you do it,” Brizill says. Here was a Hill staffer who seemed to be unilaterally setting the social and legislative agenda of the District. She bristled at Simmons’ big-footed intrusion into city affairs.
“I told him if you try to force this down the District of Columbia’s throat, you are headed for an explosion,” recalls Brizill. “And he just went off.”
Sources who were at the meeting said Simmons turned red—the veins in his neck stuck out—and he was visibly angered. They said that the verbal attack he unleashed on Brizill had the power of a “physical blow.”
“At one point in the meeting Simmons turns to me and puts his finger in my face. He says he and Congress are going to teach the District of Columbia a lesson,” continues Brizill.
“I just attributed it all to a bunch of crazy white Republicans,” she adds.
While conventional wisdom attributes the Hill’s ardent antagonism toward the District to Walsh, those in the know say it is actually Simmons who harbors much of the rancor. And even though he’s just a congressional aide, Simmons has plenty of practical power, with a portfolio over District affairs courtesy of Walsh, and many admirers among Republicans on the Hill. No less an authority than the Village Voice recently touted him as one of five up-and-coming darlings of the party. But not everybody on the Hill is lauding Simmons’ outsize role in District affairs.
“He comes across as very engaging, attractive, charming, and as very passionate. But then his passions moved to zealousness. He is a zealot in motion,” says a Capitol Hill source who has attended several key meetings and social events where Simmons has been present.
Even now, as the District’s budget is quietly being approved on the Hill, the memory of congressional adventurism in the past year hangs near, and Simmons’ fingerprints are all over it. At the beginning of the session, Gingrich pledged to District residents at a town-hall meeting that Congress would not try to operate like the city’s elected officials. But Simmons’ fiscal 1996 budget wish list was a clear intrusion into the heart of District affairs. What’s more, it encroached on the terrain Congress carved out for the control board it created. But Simmons hadn’t wanted the control board in the first place, and he doesn’t respect territorial boundaries. Simmons realized that the subcommittee still had ultimate control over the District’s purse strings.
On the Hill, the budget must first pass the District appropriations subcommittee, then the full appropriations committee, and finally the full House and Senate. During any aspect of the approval process, any congressional representative may tack onto the budget any item of his or her choosing. As subcommittee chairman, Walsh had first dibs on the city’s budget, and in the past year Simmons put that prerogative to good use.
A few weeks after that June meeting, Simmons made good on his threat: Walsh strolled into the hearing room at the Rayburn Building armed with 40 amendments to the budget legislation—which had yet to be written. Ranking minority committee member Julian Dixon (D-Calif.) pressed Walsh about the logic of tying an albatross around the city’s neck. Like Brizill, Dixon was concerned about the intrusive nature of the amendments, and besides, he wanted to give the control board time to act. But Simmons wasn’t hearing any of that. Constantly in Walsh’s right ear, he plied the congressman with snappy comebacks to Dixon’s bevy of questions. District activists and members of the press were flabbergasted by the Simmons-Walsh puppet show. No one could remember a time when anyone had attempted to attach amendments to legislation without first presenting the bill.
The scene attested to Simmons’ power over Walsh’s good judgment. It also provided a visual tableau of what District officials had always believed: Simmons, described by at least one District pundit as “the man who sits behind Walsh with a sneer and has nothing but contempt for the city,” was no low-level paper-pusher.
“Clearly he exercises an incredible amount of power,” says one council staffer who has interacted with Simmons on several occasions and who, like many of the people interviewed for this article, requested anonymity. Even though Simmons is just a run-of-the-mill congressional aide, people are not anxious to find themselves at cross purposes with him.
The kind of juice Simmons displays is not unprecedented. Staffers on Capitol Hill and even in the District government often wield considerable clout. Witness control board Executive Director John Hill’s leverage with his chairman, Andrew Brimmer, or City Administrator Michael Rogers’ influence with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry. And everyone knows, if you want to get to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, you tap her aide, Donna Brazile. But that level of influence usually derives from tenure and experience, or status as staff director of a committee.
But in Simmons’ case, the underling has neither tenure nor position. He only arrived to serve Walsh in 1991. Simmons refused to be interviewed for this article, citing Walsh’s rule that staffers not be quoted in the press and failed to respond to a request for his résumé.
Folks on the Hill, or even in the District, wouldn’t be so quick to begrudge Simmons his commanding role in city affairs if he weren’t so obnoxious. He delights in the role of antagonist, casting anyone connected to the District as a bumbling incompetent. At least three people who work on the Hill interviewed say off the record that Simmons’ comments and characterizations of the city reflect a racial component to his distaste for the District.
“John has made disparaging statements about the District that can be perceived as being racist,” says one congressional staffer.
Racism or just disrespect, Simmons’ attitude has profound implications, because at a time when Congress has taken an ongoing interest in the city, Simmons has become a nexus for all things District-related. He has such command with Walsh on some days that it’s hard to tell who is ventriloquist and who is dummy. It isn’t unusual to hear Walsh speaking words previously spoken by Simmons, or to see Simmons step in and speak for Walsh, even when the congressman is present.
“I have seen him sometimes go so far as to jump in and finish Walsh’s sentence,” says WAMU political analyst Mark Plotkin, who also tangled with Simmons over his 40-item wish list. Plotkin says Simmons called his home and left a threatening message on his answering machine.
And just as it’s hard to tell where Simmons ends and Walsh begins, it’s hard to tell who’s driving the subcommittee’s contentious relationship with the city. “It’s evident in meetings that he represents the hard-line anchor for Walsh,” says a Barry administration official.
A 28-year-old Rochester, N.Y., native, Simmons’ résumé is short: He snared his post with Walsh soon after graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology, where he received his Bachelor of Science in Finance in 1991. He sharpened his only political teeth as president of the student government at Rochester. During the summer of 1990 he was a researcher with Cassidy and Associates. A Roman Catholic, Simmons was born Dec. 15, 1967. The 1994 Congressional Staff Directory lists him as Legislative Assistant and Systems Administrator. In 1995, he held the post of appropriations associate.
According to those who know him, Simmons frequently recalls his service as student-government president when boasting of his expertise and his political potential. But compared to the history of other congressional aides—Donna Brazile, for instance, was deputy campaign manager for both Richard Gephardt and Michael Dukakis—Simmons’ preening about being a big wheel in student government seems silly.
Like many talented and ambitious young people, Simmons has trouble knowing when to quit. Last year, as the city’s budget hung in the balance, Walsh showed up with Simmons in tow for a dinner hosted by District businessman Robert Linowes. A bigwig with the Federal City Council, Linowes is a Walsh fan and has done some fund-raising for him. He wanted to introduce Walsh to other key business leaders in the city. The entire event was designed to influence congressional decisions on the District while putting a few dollars in Walsh’s pocket, especially since he’s up for re-election. In the middle of the evening, Walsh was called back to the Hill to vote, leaving Simmons “untethered,” as one source puts it.
“[Simmons] went into this breathtaking monologue about what he was going to do to the city,” recalls one guest. “Everyone was stunned by it, [mostly] for its hubris. He talked about all these plans, all of which were fairly punitive. Then he said he had moved into Congressman [James] Moran [D-Va.]’s district and planned to run against him.
“When the Speaker heard about what John had said he was very upset,” continues the guest. “The last thing you want to know is that a staffer is positioning himself to run against a member of Congress, even if that member is Democrat. It just isn’t the proper thing to do.”
Although he’s since been mum on his political future, Simmons is methodically building his portfolio of issues and gathering an interesting collection of constituents along the way. For example, when the congressional proposal to fund tuition vouchers in the District hit the mat last year, Simmons pushed charter schools through the conference committee, something that pleased conservatives immensely.
And he isn’t just playing right field. Carl Schmid, president of the gay Republican group Capital Area Log Cabin, has only praise for Simmons. He credits Simmons with helping to prevent legislation from being tacked onto the city’s budget that would have prohibited gay couples from adopting children. Schmid also says it was Simmons who helped block the repeal of the city’s domestic-partnership law (although the law’s implementation remains unfunded).
“He has always been extremely helpful and always honest and respectful,” says Schmid. “Initially there was a lot of distrust. But he is a man of his word.”
Schmid and his group also tapped Simmons when they wanted Walsh to do something about restoring the federal funding stream to local AIDS service organizations.
“I brought in several AIDS groups to see him; the next day the federal government announced it was taking over” payments to providers of services to persons with HIV and AIDS, recalls Schmid. Schmid says he never met with Walsh, but that every promise Simmons made, Walsh delivered.
“John said when he was student-government president he was responsible for it adopting a policy of nondiscrimination,” Schmid says. “He really cares about this stuff.”
Because Simmons and Walsh are so simpatico, the aide has often served as a weather vane of the congressman’s intentions. Earlier this year, Simmons reportedly went into a tirade when the control board delivered the city’s fiscal 1997 budget. He blasted the board for submitting a budget with a nearly $100-million deficit while taking note of the sorry state of the District’s streets and schools. Three days later, in the Washington Post and in committee, Walsh took exactly the same position: “They have a $5-billion budget and they can’t fix the streets and teach the kids,” he reportedly told the Post. A fellow congressman says that Walsh reflects so much of Simmons’ agenda because in his heart he isn’t engaged by the D.C. assignment.
“You have to understand, Walsh didn’t really want the committee. He really isn’t that interested in the District,” continues the representative. “He is more hands-off, while John is definitely hands-on.”
In a rather terse telephone interview, Walsh says only that Simmons is a “good person” and “very valuable.” When asked about his extensive influence, Walsh snaps that Simmons has no greater clout than any of his other staffers. And Walsh takes issue when Simmons’ relationship with various District officials is characterized as “contentious.”
Simmons is ferociously loyal to Walsh, so it’s no surprise that Walsh responds in kind. But it’s not loyalty born of performance. Recent history indicates that when Walsh has followed Simmons’ advice he has been pulverized. When Simmons saddled the District’s fiscal 1996 appropriations bill with the 40 irrelevant amendments, Gingrich insisted that many of the measures be dropped. And Simmons’ hard-line, punish-the-District budgetary advice didn’t stick, either. In the end, a spending cap for fiscal 1996 was negotiated, and the city’s budget moved through Congress. Simmons had lost and his boss was publicly defeated. But in further testament to Simmons’ durability, the smell from his miscalculation didn’t linger.
“Any other staffer who put his member in that position would have been fired,” says one congressional source.
But “Simmons came through the ashes,” adds Brizill.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.