WASHINGTON, D.C. – As U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus sat inside his Washington, D.C. office, talking with John Holub from the Pennsylvania Retailers Association and staffers, a dog casually strolled through the doorway and then weaved its way through the furniture and people.
The playful animal – with curly brownish white fur and bright eyes – hopped right up onto the couch next to Holub and practically looked like it was posing for pictures as Tribune-Democrat photographer Thomas Slusser instinctively grabbed a camera. Finally, somebody in the room asked the obvious question:
Whose dog is this?
Nobody knew at first.
One of the congressman’s staff members eventually realized it was Carmela, a dog seen around one of the neighboring offices in the Longworth House Office Building.
Everybody in the room smiled, including Rothfus, in a moment when he was not a legislator, not a politician seeking re-election this year, not somebody worried about complex issues and campaign strategy, but just a person affectionately enjoying a lighthearted occurrence.
Rothfus’ chief of staff, Charles McCoy, called that part of the congressman’s personality “one of his greatest strengths.”
“But also, his reluctance to open up and share his personal life is also one of his liabilities,” McCoy said. “He is such a loving husband, father, citizen. He loves the Constitution. He loves politics. He loves the founding fathers. So he has these passions that make him normal, but folks just see him as this hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone member of Congress.”
And that personal side that constituents might not know about includes Rothfus being a cancer survivor, marathon runner and native of Endicott, New York, who spent years as a lawyer before entering politics.
“Whether he’s at home with his family, whether he’s campaigning, whether he’s completing his duties as a member, whether he’s an altar boy, whether he’s recovering from cancer, he’s the same guy,” McCoy said.
Meetings, meetings, meetings
The dog’s appearance was a light moment during a typical whirlwind schedule on Sept. 6, when Rothfus met with journalists from the Tribune-Democrat.
Like how the congressman and others were politely, but strictly, told by a security guard to get up on the sidewalk – and off of the road – when walking.
Or when Rothfus joked about how a slightly disheveled man, who was offering some unsolicited offbeat political opinions to passersby, was probably a former congressman … which he was not.
Those brief encounters took place during a four-hour span when Rothfus, a Republican from Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, not only sat down for a lengthy interview, but also asked questions at a House Committee on Financial Services hearing called “A Failure to Act: How a Decade without GSE Reform Has Once Again Put Taxpayers at Risk,” participated in a House Committee on the Judiciary markup, met with Holub and stood in the blisteringly 90-degree heat – while still wearing a suit – for a few quick pictures with the Capitol dome in the background.
Keith Rothfus started coming to the Johnstown area in 2011, meeting with voters and working to establish a political base within the local Republican Party.
His schedule on that day was packed minute-to-minute yet fluid, as indicated by how the interview time was changed from 2 p.m. to 1 p.m. and then eventually 10 a.m.
“We are certainly in a constant challenge to make the best decisions, manage his limited time and make the best priorities for him,” McCoy said. “Any staff for (a Congress) member is challenged with that. And we certainly are.”
The routine was common for the congressman, who must deal with issues as broad as nuclear proliferation to a Johnstown resident’s personal concerns about Social Security, while maintaining lives in Washington, the 12th district and home – all with maybe five to six hours of sleep a night.
“I don’t think about it,” Rothfus said.
“You just do it. Again, going back to the scope of the issues that we have to be cognizant of in the federal government, I’m always reading something. And then I’m meeting with constituents, meeting with small businesses, meeting with nonprofits, meeting with colleagues here in Washington, trying to find the solutions that we need to fix so many of the issues that challenge us.”
Time for work, family
After the dog and journalists left, Rothfus remained in his work area – Longworth 1205 – where a sign reading “this office belongs to the people of Pennsylvania’s twelfth congressional district” greets visitors at the door.
Inside, there is a waiting room with items that could be found in a local business office: A picture of Johnstown, banners for Pittsburgh professional sports teams and a snack basket filled mostly with Eat ‘n Park “smiley” cookies.
And, right next to his desk, a half-dozen child’s cartoon drawings of Rothfus family members hang on a door, including one showing him and his wife, Elsie, apparently resembling bunny rabbits. Together they have six children.
He tries to eat dinner with the family – back at their home in Sewickley, Allegheny County – at least three days a week when he is in the district.
But the demands of the job, especially when Congress is in session – and he is sleeping on his office couch at night – limits the time Rothfus can spend with loved ones.
“This has been challenging,” Rothfus said. “That is probably the most challenging aspect of this job. And I probably underestimated how much time I’d be away from my family.”
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican from the state of Washington, considers that caring nature one of Rothfus’ best attributes.
“When I think about Keith Rothfus, I think about someone who cares,” she said during an interview in her Washington, D.C., office. “He listens. He does his homework.”
Congressmen ‘are people’
Like Rodgers, the Rev. Sylvia King, pastor at Christ Centered Community Church and a Democrat on Johnstown City Council, has a connection to the congressman, a devout Roman Catholic and the first director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the Department of Homeland Security.
“As a person, Sylvia King loves Keith Rothfus,” she said.
King recalled a time when Rothfus visited her church for a dinner.
“You feel that if you have a congressperson coming to your church and they’re coming for dinner that you want to kind of roll out the red carpet, if you will,” King said. “But he just was very down to earth.”
And those are the moments not often experienced by people who only see Rothfus – and other congressmen – when they are carrying out their official duties.
“People think that elected officials are what you see on television,” said Brian Subich, a field representative in Rothfus’ Johnstown office.
“And they sometimes forget that they are people, just like you and I. They have wives or husbands, they have kids and parents and, ultimately, they too have feelings. The congressman likes music, likes to read and enjoys time with his family, no different than anyone else.
“I’ve seen the congressman when his tie has been crooked, he’s spilled something on his shirt or seen him rushing to get somewhere when we’ve been late. He experiences those same emotions and feelings about those things happening to him as anyone else. He worries about his wife and family, just like anyone else. And I’ve been fortunate to observe the congressman interact with world leaders and then watch him serving people who can’t afford their next meal at the Johnstown soup kitchen. And the thing that sticks with me the most is that he treats them all the same – with respect, with compassion and with a general concern.”