WASHINGTON, D.C., USA — For a delegation that easily logs more than a million highway miles every year, Wednesday's news of the death of U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski and staffers Zachery Potts and Emma Thomson was a staggering, drop-to-your-knees moment of shock and then overwhelming grief.
Lee Hamilton once told me it could take him five hours to cross the old sprawling 9th CD. Highway and air travel are a fact of life for members of Congress. A typical day in a district is a member scheduled with five, seven, eight events, meeting with farmers, mayors, business folks, with hundreds of miles logged, with grueling days, sometimes stretching to 12 to 14 hours, from dawn 'til dusk.
Any congressional staffer of much tenure has stories about flying into a headwind as a turbulent cold front approaches, or dodging deer on a late night return to office.
"You spend this time on the road working, telling stories and laughing — and the days can be long," said former Indiana Democratic chairman John Zody, a former staffer to U.S. Baron Hill. "These trips, the people you meet on them in our communities and the memories you make become a part of you and the work you do — and always stay with you."
It's a testament to staffers that the Walorski tragedy doesn't happen more often. That 27-year-old Zach Potts, the St. Joseph County Republican chair, and 28-year-old Thomson, who served as her Washington-based communications director, were killed just deepens this tragedy.
In the television age of Indiana politics, we've had U.S. Rep. Adam Benjamin die of a heart attack, U.S. Rep. Julia Carson of cancer, and we've had a couple of near misses, including Sen. Birch Bayh surviving a plane crash that severely injured U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy. But for the tens of millions of flown and driven miles, Jackie Walorski's death was rare for Indiana's congressional class.
In Jackie Walorski, we witnessed through her General Assembly and then congressional career a fabulous person with a huge, servant's heart. At a moment when brittle partisanship permeates Washington, Walorski’s death shook the capital and drew an outpouring of grief from leaders of both parties.
“We may have represented different parties and disagreed on many issues, but she was respected by members of both parties for her work on the House Ways and Means Committee on which she served,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “She also served as co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus, and my team and I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was shaken by Walorski’s death.
“This news is absolutely devastating,” McCarthy wrote in a tweet. “Jackie was a dear friend, trusted advisor, and the embodiment of integrity who achieved the admiration and respect of all her colleagues in the House. She always put other first.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ordered the flags at the Capitol to be flown at half-mast in honor of Walorski, was one of several mourners who noted her kindness.
“She passionately brought the voices of her north Indiana constituents to the Congress, and she was admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her personal kindness," Pelosi said.
Walorski was the top-ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support. She was in line to chair the subcommittee next year, if Republicans win the House in November’s election.
“Jackie brought a passion and love to her public service that I will always remember,” said Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass. “She put nervous witnesses at ease with her kindness, and never met a stranger. Her bright smile, booming laugh, but most of all, deep commitment to children and families will be forever missed on the Ways and Means Committee.”
First elected to Congress in 2012, Walorski’s tenure in the House not only took her to a leadership position on one of the highest-profile and most coveted committees in Congress — Ways and Means — and also to one of its most thankless outposts. She was ranking member of the House Ethics Committee, where she dealt with issues her colleagues gladly avoided but also built political capital for the way she handled the sensitive role.
Walorski’s effort to promote women in science, technology, engineer and mathematics brought her into contact recently with Indiana University President Pamela Whitten. Walorski was the co-chair of the congressional Women in STEM Caucus.
Walorski and Whitten met for the first time via a Zoom call last week, said Doug Wasitis, IU associate vice president for federal relations.
“She was absolutely, clearly committed to advancing young girls and women in the STEM field,” Wasitis said. “We were very excited to watch her in that world.
"She got her district,” Wasitis said. “She knew what [her constituents] needed.”
Purdue President Mitch Daniels observed, “There could not be worse news. I’m heartsick at this tragedy. Jackie Walorski was a great public servant, a brave and constant ally for change during all my years in elected office, and a great representative of her district at both the state and national levels. I can’t say how much I’ll miss her.”
Mark Schoeff Jr., Washington correspondent for Howey Politics Indiana, contributed to this column. The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.