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U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean refuses to say ‘no’ to people in need, and it’s making all the difference | Maria Panaritis

Others would have wanted to talk “Trump” with the House Judiciary Committee member. Me? I wanted to talk starfish.

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, left, listens as Mike Tucker, right, a constituent case manager, explains who mostly calls for help at her 4th District Congressional office in Glenside, Pa.
U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, left, listens as Mike Tucker, right, a constituent case manager, explains who mostly calls for help at her 4th District Congressional office in Glenside, Pa.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

I came to interview the congresswoman. I left with a nerd-crush on the congresswoman and her right-hand woman.

How is it, I had wondered while wandering into U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean’s Glenside office this week, that the freshman Democrat is on pace to close way, way more constituent service cases than any other freshman House Democrat in the country? Way more, even, than pretty much any other Democrat in Congress?

I half-apologized to Dean, on behalf of my readers, for not taking advantage of my face time with her to partake in the drunken binge-fest of political journalism that revolves around talk of TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP! The Montgomery County congresswoman sits on the House Judiciary Committee and was heading to Washington to partake in the pondering of articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump this week.

But all I wanted to know was this: How had this 60-year-old lawyer and her staff, not even a full 12 months into federal office, managed to close 1,400 constituent service cases in her first term — a figure that is on the higher end of what a typical Democratic freshman or even a veteran would handle in a given year, according to caucus insiders in Washington.

“It seems almost trivial,” I said as we began our talk, “that I’m here to talk to you about constituent service.”

“Maybe it’s not,” the congresswoman replied.

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In my conversations Monday with Dean and, separately, with the former state office staff members she imported into her congressional roster this year, I discovered that tending to residents’ micro-needs has been a priority of hers since she took over Josh Shapiro’s former state House seat in 2012. I discovered also a refreshing moral focus and go-against-convention managerial competency from one of the four women who blasted through the all-male ceiling of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation and won seats in the 2018 midterms.

“I have a team of people who believe in this,” Dean told me.

But it’s Dean’s deep commitment to service as part of her Catholic faith in the social justice tradition of St. Vincent de Paul that sets the priority at all.

“Every little person you help,” said the onetime La Salle University professor and mother, wife, and grandmother, “it actually feels good.”

Dean has been at this constituent thing for years. At the helm of making it happen is a longtime staffer whose intensity must be experienced in person: Kathleen Joyce. The moment I stepped into Joyce’s office, I felt like I was talking to someone who should have been chain-smoking with me while trying to untangle the colors on a Rubik’s Cube.

Joyce wouldn’t let us take her picture — another reason to love her. So try to visualize this instead: A 56-year-old woman seated behind a not-too-messy, not-too-perfect desk — bookkeeper and office manager in her former life — with a Kathleen Turner-raspy voice that stays steady while taut with intensity.

It is Joyce who helped build a formidable constituent-service operation almost immediately after Dean became a state legislator. It is Joyce who now runs it as Dean’s congressional district office director.

It was Joyce’s idea to take Dean door to door in the summer when she wasn’t running for re-election in her first state legislative term. They handed out constituent service fliers and asked what people needed. People were shocked to learn they could get everything from a notary services to help with housing from their local rep.

“If you’re going to knock on doors and ask people for their vote,” Joyce reasoned, “you should also knock on their doors to assist them.”

Joyce installed a “constituent kiosk” at the state office, and anyone could come in and use the Internet-connected computer. Today, most federal requests have to do with Social Security, immigration, or health care.

Joyce got involved in township politics over sewer-backup problems affecting homeowners in Glenside two decades ago. She tried to kick the bums out by running for local office. She lost. She joined the local Democratic committee in Abington-Rockledge to make sure the only victorious politicians are those who don’t give residents the shaft.

She and Dean met while volunteering on the 2008 Obama campaign. Both were born and raised in Glenside, though Dean now lives in Jenkintown.

“We’ve lived here forever,” Joyce said. “We know everybody.”

It is Dean’s mandate and values system, however, that drives the mission: “Always say yes.”

She is even-tempered on the political stage and has no reputation for the kind of brawling language of fellow progressives. Yet she reminds me that the U.S. Constitution still does not explicitly contain an amendment that guarantees equality for women.

Why, then, I asked, is the “small ball” of constituent services so important?

She told me a parable about a boy on a beach.

“Washed up on the beach are thousands of starfish. He’s happily, joyfully throwing them in with an urgency of purpose.... An older man walks by and looks and sees only futility. And he says, ‘What are you doing?’ And the boy says, ‘They’ve all washed up on the beach, they’re all going to dry up and die.’ And he said, ‘Little boy, can’t you see you can’t make a difference?’”

The boy leans down, picks up another, throws it into the water, and says: “‘Made a difference for that one.’”