11 Questions for Writer Kitty Felde

1. Is the partisanship as bad as we hear it is on Capitol Hill?

Worse. And it shows up in the strangest ways. Believe it or not, there are “Democratic” churches and “Republican” churches around Washington. There are restaurants that often host GOP fundraisers and others that host exclusively “blue” events. Any member who dares to join a bipartisan working group risk being ostracized by party leaders.

2.  Why is that?

In the old days, travel took a lot more time. So most members lived in DC while Congress was in session. That meant that you ran into folks from the other party at the dry cleaners and grocery store, your kids played on the same soccer team, you saw a member from the other party as a real person.

Living in DC became a political liability in recent years. Members are expected to fly home every weekend to spend time in their district. And for some members from the west who live in small towns, those trips home can be 10-12 hours. Even longer if you live in Alaska or Hawaii.

3.  That must be hard on families.

It really is. I talked to so many members who gave a laundry list of the things they missed in their kids’ lives because they just couldn’t be there. That strain is at the heart of the relationship between Fina and her father the congressman.

4. What was the inspiration for “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza”?

I spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill, following politicians, getting yelled at by the Capitol police, wandering around the U.S. Capitol. There were so many stories that didn’t fit into my reporting. Putting my observations into the mouth of a girl from California was very satisfying.

5.  Are any of the characters based on real people?

Fina was inspired by a young woman I mentored for many years. She even lent me her name for the character. The politicians, staffers, and police officers in the book are the fictional version of the many, many people I met over the years.

6.  Are there really dogs wandering the halls of Congress?

There are! It’s not unusual to see a poodle marching down the halls of the House and Senate office buildings, acting like they were the ones who got elected last November. In fact, one of my favorite Capitol Hill dogs, former Congressman Jerry Lewis’ pup Bruin, even makes a cameo in the book.

7. Are there other odd things about Capitol Hill?

As a Californian, Capitol Hill seemed very odd. Shoes, for example. DC is NOT a fashion forward town. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say the clothes sold in DC stores are downright ugly. Shoes are even worse. Because of all the walking on cobblestones, brick, and marble, you need comfortable shoes. Conservative shoes if you’re on the Hill. Usually that means ugly round-nosed ballet flats with a buckle across the front.

There’s also a dress code for folks who work in the Capitol. Women are not allowed on the House floor – or even in the Speakers Lobby next door – unless they have their arms covered. No sleeveless dresses, even in the middle of summer! Unless you’re the First Lady. She can wear whatever she wants. No hats for women. Jackets and ties for men. Though, the rules are stretched on “getaway” day when members cast their last vote and run like crazy to catch a plane.

Also, you can trick-or-treat year-round in congressional offices. Each member likes to show off what is grown or manufactured in their district. So you can strategically pick up pecans from a Georgia politician, chocolate milk from a Central Valley Californian, and cheese sticks from a Wisconsin member.

8.  So what’s this curse of the Demon Cat?

It’s pretty bad. If you see this cat that grows to the size of a bus, you’ll be cursed with bad luck. Someone allegedly saw it before President Kennedy was assassinated. Another appearance was noted before the 1929 stock market crash. And if you’re a politician and you see it, you’ll lose your election.

9. Did you see the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill?

Alas, no. But not for not trying. I did find evidence, though, just like Fina. There’s several sets of paw prints in the concrete floor outside the old Supreme Court chamber in the Capitol.

10. What’s the real story of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill?

It seems that in the early days, there was even more nepotism at work in the Capitol than in the present-day Washington. Capitol policemen were not the well-trained force at work today. Back then, they were most likely friends and relatives of folks who already worked in the Capitol. Many of them drank on duty.

One of them fell asleep on the floor. He woke up when he felt something licking his face. When he opened his eyes, he saw what he thought was the face of a gigantic cat hovering over him. A demon cat. The story was frightening enough to get him a day off.  

Other workers started “seeing” that cat as well. The legend of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill took off.

11.        LA City Hall is currently under siege from rats. I understand that the U.S. Capitol also has a rodent problem. 

Mice are everywhere in the Capitol! A former staffer for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told me it wasn’t uncommon to have a meeting interrupted by a mouse scurrying across the room. A staffer for a GOP congressman from Indiana posted a picture of the boss holding up an old-fashioned mousetrap with a dead mouse inside. Usually, janitors apply sticky yellow tape to walls all over the Capitol and collect the stuck-on mice in the morning. (Yes, they’re still alive. At least until they are caught.) In the old days, workers relied on a more environmentally friendly solution: cats.