It’s not unusual for people to stop Sen. Bernie Sanders in the supermarket or after a town meeting to thank him for the work his office has done to help friends or family members navigate the layers of the federal bureaucracy. The reason: a five-member team of constituent advocates in Sanders’ Burlington, Vt., office that is dedicated to helping hundreds of Vermonters each month.
In the wake of the most severe recession in generations, the number of Vermonters seeking help increased dramatically. Since the recession began in 2007, Sanders’ office has helped more than 10,000 Vermonters on a broad range of issues. The most typical inquiries, said Gretchen Bailey who leads the team, are from people looking for help with Social Security, veterans issues, housing problems and immigration matters. “When the economy is bad, people are desperate,” she said, explaining that the urgency of the cases, as well as the number of cases, rises during difficult economic times.
After Tropical Storm Irene caused horrendous damage to Vermont in 2011, Sanders’ team of constituent advocates learned the nuances of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help Vermonters secure funds to rebuild.
A testament to her good work, Bailey, 68, has won the Congressman John Joseph Moakley Award for Exemplary Public Service. “Gretchen strongly believes that government should work for people and in the difference individuals can make in achieving that goal. She consistently demonstrates that the efforts of one person can make a profound impact on the life of another,” Sanders wrote in his letter nominating her for the award. “Gretchen has dedicated her life to this mission.”
Each year, the award is presented to an individual in recognition of outstanding accomplishments and achievements as a staff member of the New England congressional delegation. “This year, you are being recognized for your longstanding commitment to public service, including your work with the Vermont Commission on Women, expediting critical cases with various federal agencies, and numerous other social issues you are deeply involved with,” wrote Kimberly Ainsworth, the executive director of the Greater Boston Federal Executive Board. “Congratulations, and thank you for your public service and hard work.”
“I’m honored and humbled,” Bailey said in a recent interview. “I work with an incredible team of people.”
Bailey, who is also an attorney, takes great pride in getting the government to work as it should for people. Sometimes the federal bureaucracy needs a nudge. “That’s what we do,” she said.
“You make sure the case is brought to the attention of the proper person,” she explained. “We help people navigate the bureaucracy, which is vast and complicated.”
Bailey said she had no idea Sanders and fellow staff members had advanced her name for the prestigious public service award. “That is the really touching part, that they went out of the way,” she said. “People who do casework are kind of the unsung heroes in congressional offices.”
“Gretchen has provided outstanding service to Vermonters during her 17 years in my office,” Sanders wrote. “She makes sure that every Vermonter she works with is heard, understood, and provided with appropriate assistance.”
The Moakley Award, which has been presented since 2002, will be presented at the Excellence in Government Awards ceremony May 7 at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in Boston.