WASHINGTON — Members of Congress grappling with how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic have few reasons to smile these days. But House Democrats have found one, and her name is Earnestine.
Earnestine Dawson is kind of a mystery woman, Democrats agree. Most have never seen her, though they all know the sound of her voice. Their spouses and kids adore her. There is talk of sending her flowers (that would be difficult — they have no idea where she is), and some have invited her to join them for dinner at the Democratic Club once COVID-19 subsides and such things are possible again.
“I don’t know where we got Earnestine,” confessed Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., the majority leader. “Does she work for us?”
Yes, Earnestine does work for the party leadership. She is the digital director for the House Democratic Caucus but better known by lawmakers for her pandemic side gig as moderator of a seemingly endless series of conference calls that have become the Democrats’ only means of communication and deliberation during the pandemic.
A Mississippi native who grew up dreaming of a job in Washington, Dawson, 37, is in charge of shaping social media strategy for House Democrats’ messaging arm, a relatively obscure position that normally entails little interaction with members of Congress. But in recent weeks, House Democrats have gotten to know her as the cheery master of ceremonies for their private calls, calling on each lawmaker in turn with her signature tagline: “Congresswoman So-and-So, you are NOW LIVE!”
As people all over the world adjust to living and working in the age of the coronavirus, with its lack of human contact and seemingly endless stream of fear and bad news, rare silver linings appear in surprising ways. For House Democrats, struggling to adapt to life as remote legislators and representatives, one bright spot has been Earnestine.
She has brought them together through tense and serious business: the drafting of three coronavirus relief packages, including the most recent $2 trillion economic stimulus bill, hashed out during a series of calls that typically lasted two hours. With more than 200 members, the caucus is too large to convene by video.
Dawson has moderated more than a dozen two-hour caucus calls since March 16, facilitating nearly 300 questions from 235 individual lawmakers. Often the calls feature special guests. Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, briefed Democrats on Monday, and Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci and other members of the president’s coronavirus task force were to field questions from them Wednesday.
Dawson is a constant, telling lawmakers to “press star three” to ask questions, gently teaching members twice her age how to unmute their phones and letting them know — sounding more like a party DJ than a telephone operator — when they have the floor to speak. She does it all from her desk in the basement of the House Longworth Building across from the Capitol, where she prefers to work rather than being at home.
“I don’t hear strain, I hear strength,” Dawson said in an interview, her first. “I think when they are on these calls together, they pull strength from one another.”
But to hear Democrats tell it, the person from whom they are pulling strength is Dawson.
To Rep. Richard Neal, 71, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Dawson is a reminder of “what radio meant to us” in the simpler days of his childhood. To Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, 66, Dawson is “a touchstone” and “a rock — the glue that keeps you together” in a troubled, uncertain time.
Hoyer says Dawson deserves a title: “We need to get a name for her, like ‘Conference Queen’ or something like that. Very few of us know her personally, but we all know her through this phone connection, and she’s the connector.”
Americans of a certain age (including Neal, Dingell and Hoyer, 80) may remember another telephone operator named Ernestine — a character played by actress Lily Tomlin on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” a 1960s- and 1970s-era television variety show. Tomlin’s Ernestine was nasal-voiced and slightly sarcastic. Dawson is nothing like her.
“She is so sweet, and she is so darling,” said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., whose district was an early epicenter of the U.S. pandemic. “My husband and son love to listen to her say, ‘Congressman Blah Blah Blah, you are now live!’ I purposely put her on speakerphone, just so they can hear her do the introduction.”
A daughter of a bank manager and a corrections officer who worked in a maximum-security prison on death row, Dawson grew up in Cleveland, Mississippi, a city of roughly 11,000 people divided by railroad tracks. Blacks, including Dawson’s family, lived in the lowlands east of the tracks. Whites lived on the west side on higher ground. Each side had its own high school, though Dawson said they have since combined.
“I had friends all over the city,” she said, “but we always knew what that railroad track meant when we crossed it.”
Dawson said she knew early on that she “wanted to get away from my small little town” and to “serve the people,” but her path to Capitol Hill was circuitous. She graduated from Tennessee State University in 2005 with a dream, she said, of becoming “the first African American female senator from Mississippi.”
After a stint at a human rights group in her home state, Dawson grabbed a chance to get to Washington as an intern for a lobbying firm whose Republican politics were antithetical to her own. After a year in law school (“I figured out real quickly it was not for me”) and a string of jobs, including courtroom clerk and field organizer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, she made her way to Capitol Hill as digital director for Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.
Clarke said Dawson had a way of “making lemonade out of lemons,” a trait the congresswoman attributed to her upbringing in a place with the legacy of segregation. Judge Hiram Puig-Lugo, for whom Dawson clerked when he was the deputy presiding judge of the Family Court division of the superior court in Washington, D.C., said the two often “spoke about that aspect of her experience and how it shaped her.”
When Democrats won control of the House in 2018, Dawson was hired by another New York Democrat, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the caucus chairman. In her current post, she has established an informal program to mentor young people of color who want to work in the digital space, in fields where minorities are often underrepresented.
With lawmakers scattered around the country, including some in quarantine, the caucus needed to create a system for communicating that would mimic its in-person meetings, which occur weekly or more often. After a few practice runs, it seemed obvious that Dawson should manage the calls, said Michael Hardaway, the caucus communications director and Dawson’s boss.
“We literally have had to build a virtual Congress for our members,” Hardaway said.
The lawmakers’ calls have not been without incident. There have been interruptions from doorbells, barking dogs and crying children, as well as the occasional overheard private spousal communications. Members are supposed to keep their comments to a minute, and if someone needs to be cut off, that task falls to Jeffries.
Last week, after teasing Dawson about whether she had gotten flowers that were never sent, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., invited her to dinner on behalf of himself and a handful of other lawmakers.
“She is such an absolute delight and such a break from everything that we’re going through,” Larson said. “We can’t wait to take her out — if she’s willing to go with us.”
Dawson, for the record, did not respond.
Dawson does not engage with members on the calls, even when they praise her, but said she tries to remain as invisible as possible out of a sense of respect and a desire to be discreet.
She sees her job, she said, as “making sure that all the members have a happy voice on the other end, especially during these hard times.”
“They are making some very hard decisions for the American people,” Dawson said. “I’m just someone on the other line, letting them know that it’s time for them to ask their question or make their comment in a very upbeat way on a topic that’s not very upbeat.”