A front row seat to history
Christy Riley recalls her role as a leading Congressional staff member
Christy Riley ventured to Washington, D.C., to launch her career, but in the end life’s highway led her back home.
Riley began to serve as a U.S. House of Representatives staff member in 1990 when she was hired as a staff assistant for Congressman Vin Weber, who represented a Minnesota Second District that was centered around southwestern Minnesota.
After gaining experience by doing everything from sorting mail to helping with the arrangement of schedules, she joined the staff of Newt Gingrich of Georgia when Weber retired in 1993. At the time Gingrich was the Republican House Majority Whip.
Two years later, he became Speaker of the House when Republicans took over both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, which dated back to when Dwight Eisenhower was serving his first of two terms.
“It was a big change in Congress,” Riley said. “It meant many changes in the roles played by House and Senate members and also in the routine of their staffs. We worked to make the transition as effective as possible.”
Gingrich’s rise to the speakership placed him third in line to the presidency. Because of those responsibilities, a Speaker’s staff consisted of 42 people.
Riley said that she saw a complete picture of Gingrich as a leader by being a staff member who interacted with him on a continuous basis.
“People who’ve never met him often have the impression that he has a gruff personality,” she said. “He was actually someone who cared about his staff and wanted us to succeed. The staff liked him. There was very little turnover.”
Riley remained on Gingrich’s staff until the Speakership was passed to Republican Congressman Dennis Hastert of Illinois. Her two most life-impacting experiences in her Washington, D.C. years occurred during Hastert’s years as Speaker. He served from 1999 until 2007, about two years after Riley left the nation’s Capitol in 2005 to return to Murray County.
The first of those two experiences began as a typical September morning except for a planned state visit by Prime Minister John Howard of Australia.
As part of those activities, Jean Hastert boarded an airplane bound for Washington D.C. in order to participate. It was planned in accordance with the custom of having the wife of the House Speaker present whenever there was a head of state visit.
In the middle of the routine process of getting ready to open the House floor, Riley heard about how the first plane in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Her first instinct was that the news report involved more than just an unexpected accident.
“The hair went up on my neck when I first heard about it,” she said. “I just had a feeling that it was a bad situation that would probably get worse”
Shortly after the first attack was publicly announced, she was part of arranging an immediate emergency meeting between Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney. As those plans and precautions in the event of a national emergency progressed, her fears about what the day would bring began to come true.
The second plane that hit the World Trade Center’s south tower was followed by another hijacked flight that crashed into a national landmark much closer to where she was standing.
“We noticed the plume of smoke outside the window,” Riley said. “It was coming from the direction of the Pentagon.”
The Pentagon attack meant that the House area along with the rest of the Capitol building needed to go into an immediate lockdown. Speaker Hastert, as third in line to the Presidency, had to be escorted to a designated safe place. Some of the staff went with him while others, including Riley, stayed behind.
Fears continued to escalate with word that a fourth off-course plane had turned in the direction of Washington, D.C. Instead of hitting one of many possible terrorist targets, it crash landed in rural Pennsylvania following a successful attempt by passengers to stop the terrorist hijackers. Their heroism was partially documented by cell phone records and crash inspections.
“We felt a tremendous amount of gratitude to the heroes who stopped the fourth plane,” Riley said. “They prevented what would have meant more death and destruction. That and the immediate sense of unity and patriotism after the attacks gave me added pride in our country.”
As part of staying behind at the Capitol, she gave a ride home to another staff member who was almost nine months pregnant after the staff member was unable to immediately reach her husband.
Her second most memorable event happened in the first week of June 2004, when she went four entire days and nights without any sleep.
She needed to do that because of the convergence of two important moments in world history. The 40th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion coincided with the death of President Ronald Reagan, who died at age 93 in California.
As a result, Riley made the trip to the Normandy beaches on the French side of the English Channel and then flew back across the Atlantic Ocean to help coordinate Reagan’s state funeral.
The experience led her to finalize a decision she’d been contemplating during the later part of her D.C. experience. She returned to the Slayton area, where she has since been raising a family. At first she was employed at the End-O-Line Railroad Park in Currie. She then became the community relations coordinator for Murray County.
She opted to return home because of the difficulty that would have gone with trying have both a career in Washington, D.C., politics and the kind of family life she’d always wanted.
“Some of my friends tried to do both,” she said. “Some of them had to plan carefully just to have a half hour for reading to their kids or playing ball with them in the yard. I didn’t want to do that as a parent.”
Riley herself did not have time for either housekeeping or lawn care, and therefore hired domestic services to take care of those household obligations.
She said she’s never had any regrets about her decision to return to her roots. Besides her goals regarding family, she discovered she truly liked living in Murray County, above and beyond how much she previously thought she liked it.
Riley will give a detailed account of her years in Washington D.C., at noon Feb. 14 at the Murray County fairgrounds 4-H building, located next to both the county museum and the Murray County Government Center.
It will be the first time she’s publicly spoken about her years working in Congress since she addressed the Slayton Kiwanis Club shortly after moving back. She said the program will include many behind the scenes details not found in standard daily news reports from Capitol Hill. One example will be the many international cultural traditions she learned about through visits by foreign leaders.
Murray County Museum Director Janet Timmerman asked Riley to consider being part of a series of daytime programs this winter and spring that are highlighting aspects of Murray County’s past.
Even though Riley’s program is centered on Washington, D.C., her memories of being a Murray County native at the forefront of national and world events easily made the list.
“She has a really great story to tell,” Timmerman said. “I’ve encouraged her to share it. Everyone has stories from their lives that deserve to be recorded for future generations.”