WASHINGTON -- Watch out, Denver!
One of Frank Shafroth's pet African crocodiles is probably somewhere in your sewer system. It answers to the name "Snorkelpuss."
Mr. Shafroth, 42, the National League of Cities' chief lobbyist for the last 10 years, relishes telling the story of how he acquired the crocodile when he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, and later donated it to the Denver Children's Zoo. Though Snorkelpuss escaped from the zoo a few years ago, another crocodile Mr. Shafroth brought back from Africa, named Red, still lives there.
Described by others in the municipal bond industry as a serious, dedicated, tireless worker, Mr. Shafroth also has a zany side that is often on display. Nearly all the stories he told during a recent interview finish up with a big punchline. Most have a couple more scattered around the middle for good measure.
"He can go from Donald Duck to deadly serious in a flash. It's a good way to keep your balance," said a former reporter who used to cover the league. "You've got to throw in the league. "You've got to throw in some silliness to balance out the seriousness. All too often people in this town are deadly serious and lose their sense of humor."
A typical Shafroth stunt occurred during a league convention years ago. The entertainment for dinner one night followed a circus notif, and red plastic noses were distributed to the city officials.
Most discarded them, but Mr. Shafroth did not. The former reporter remembers running up to him later on to get a comment for a story. "I'm talking serious notes and I look up and he has this red plastic nose on," the former reporter recalled.
The noses "were generally available, but only Shafroth looked comfortable wearing one," the former reporter said. "It didn't bother Shafroth to go walking out of the hotel sporting a big, red plastic nose."
Whence the Silliness?
Mr. Shafroth claims not to take after anyone in his family in his penchant for silliness. When asked why he constantly tries to find the humor in a situation, he answers with a story about a roof he and his landlord had built for a porch on his house in Liberia.
"A storm is clearly coming in, so we close all the shutters. We hear this tremendous ripping sound. The whole roof that we have just spent weeks putting on is gone, flying over the field behind the house. And then another sound, and the roof over the house takes off," he said.
"We look up, and just as we look up, we see the open sky, there's a huge bolt of lightning, and outlined against the bolt of lightning is an enormous rat.
"And I swear to you, the rat is looking at us and laughing," Mr. Shafroth said, chuckling again at the memory.
"I looked at my landlord and we just started laughing like hell. And maybe that's part of it, that you have to be able to find humor in everything. You have to be able to laugh. Otherwise it would be too terrible."
Mr. Shafroth also has a habit of attaching nicknames to people. Before "Snorkelpuss" was a crocodile's name, it was the nickname for Mr. Shafroth's brother, and "Red" the nickname for his mother. Monikers he has given to people include "Floppy Chicken," "Hairball," "Spot," and "Bailout" -- the latter bestowed, fittingly enough, on an aide to a member of the Senate Banking Committe.
"I think it's fair to say that almost everyone I know who has a nickname takes it as a sign of affection," which is how it is intended, he said. In fact, "there are people who know me well, whom I've known for a long time, for whom I don't have a nickname, and they're a little bit hurt and resentful."
So, who does rate a nickname? "There are some people who sort of bring it out. People I like a lot or people who have something distinctive to them that attracts me."
Mr. Shafroth's own nickname, well known throughout municipal circles, is "Dr. Doom," for the negative outlook he tends to have on issues he is working on.
The name was born in the late 1970s when Mr. Shafroth was an aide to a Senate subcommittee and had an office without a window. Jim Schuyler, a lobbyist with the National Association of Homebuilders, brought him over a cardboard box with a window painted on it. Written above the window were the words, "Dr. Doom's world." The box is gone, but the name stuck.
Though he is a native of Littleton, Colo., it is probably not surprising that Mr. Shafroth would have ended up in Washington, D.C., given his family history. "Most of the males in the family have run for public office," he said.
At least a few of the Shafroths have been very successful in politics. Probably the most successful was Mr. Shafroth's great-grandfather, John Shafroth. Between 1895 and 1919 John Shafroth was governor of Colorado, a U.S. representative, and a senator.
Morrison Shafroth, Frank's grandfather, had the dubious honor of being fired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. While he was chief counsel to the Internal Revenue Service, the elder Shafroth was approached by a top aide of FDR's and asked to audit the income tax returns of several leading Republican families. He refused, and was sent packing to Colorado.
Mr. Shafroth, who is 42 years old, came to Washington at the height of the Watergate affair, after stints in South America and Africa for the Peace Corps.
Why to Washington?
"I decided to come here because I was convinced I had politics in my blood, so I was going to come here until I got it out of my blood, and then I would go back to Colorado," he said, adding he has no idea when he will be returning West.
After filling out more than 100 applications, he finally got his first job with the administrator of the U.S. Courts, but left after only a few days to work on the campaign of a woman named Gladys Spellman, who was running for Congress.
Mrs. Spellman won a seat in the 1974 election, and Mr. Shafroth became an aide to the congresswoman, working for her until 1978, when he signed on as an aide to Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa. In 1979 he switched jobs again, becoming assistant counsel to the Senate Banking Committee's subcommittee on housing and urban affairs.
Mr. Shafroth said his job interview with the subcommittee chair at the time, Sen. Harrison Williams, D-N.J., was the strangest he had ever had.
Mr. Shafroth came to the interview sick with pneumonia and minus his voice. What he did not know at the time was that the senator had just been to the dentist and was still under the effects of laughing gas.
Sen. Williams "was in a sparkling mood," but Mr. Shafroth couldn't talk, so he wrote on a piece of paper that he had pneumonia and laryngitis, and passed it to the senator, Mr. Shafroth said.
"He just starts laughing," Mr. Shafroth said. "He says, 'usually when people are in here with me they're scared to death.'"
At that point, Mr. Shafroth said, he realized Sen. Williams thought he was kidding, so he passed the senator another note describing his illness.
But on receiving the second note, Sen. Williams "laughs even harder. So this goes on for half an hour. The more notes I write, the funnier he thinks this is."
Finally, the senator ended the interview, telling Mr. Shafroth that the subcommittee staff director, Al Eisenberg, "'thinks you're a great guy, and I think you're funny as hell, so you're hired.' So I got the job. And we had barely discussed anything else" in the interview.
Mr. Shafroth left the subcommittee staff in 1981. He would have stayed longer, but the Republicans had taken control of the Senate in the election of 1980, which reduced the number of staff members used by Democrats on congressional committees. The Democratic staff on the Senate Banking Committee, for example, was reduced from 21 to seven.
At that point, Mr. Shafroth was hired by the league. Working as a lobbyist was not what Mr. Shafroth had had in mind when he realized he would have to leave the subcommittee, "but the prospect of having no income was very high in my mind" because he had two children and was still in law school. In 1976, Mr. Shafroth had married a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, marcia Evans, and they now have three children.
"The prospect of being a lobbyist was something I abhorred since I had developed a singular distaste for lobbyists while working on the Hill," Mr. Shafroth said.
But looking back, he said he does not regret having left Capitol HIll. Paradoxically, becoming the minority party could have offered the Democrats some interesting opportunities and could have made Congress a more exciting place to work for a Democrat staffer, but that is not how things turned out, Mr. Shafroth said.
Mr. Shafroth said he and Sen. Williams "agreed this was a healthy thing for the Democrats not to be running [Congress for awhile], to get them out of a rut and let them get together and really focus on what's important, what new ideas are out there."
Instead, during the six years the Democrats were the minority party in the Senate, they "were defensive, didn't come up with new ideas."
That "was a disappointing time to me," Mr. Shafroth said. "It was a time when I think there could have been an awful lot of excitement. There wasn't. Had there been, I would have missed it terribly, but as it was I came out much better."
Mr. Shafroth also doesn't regret leaving Capitol Hill because he has enjoyed "every minute I've had here" at the league.
That is partly because, "on some issues it's been exciting, and we've been able to make a tiny difference," he said. "That's very unlike lobbying in the private sector for profit."
He also has enjoyed the job because of the high caliber of the city officials he has worked with.
"The overwhelming majority of our members are involved in public service because of a deep commitment and believe in it. They do it as a second job," he said. "They get paid peanuts, if anything, for being public elected officials. They get abuse heaped on them, but they do it for the very best of reasons in almost every case."
The dedication he ascribes to city officials is something others in the municipal community mention about Mr. Shafroth, whose official title is director of the office for policy and federal relations for the league.
Mr. Shafroth is "a very intense person, very meticulous and thorough," said a colleague who asked not to be identified. "In terms of the level of commitment, it's more than a job. He has an abiding sense of purpose. That's something that comes out fairly strongly in his work."
Cathie G. Eitelberg, who lobbies on pension and benefits issues for the Government Finance Officers Association, said Mr. Shafroth's energy for his work "is matched by a fine intellect and a corny sense of humor."
So, What's Not to Like?
But Mr. Shafroth also has his detractors. "The thing that always pissed me off about Frank was that moral indignation," said a source in the municipal community, complaining about what he called Mr. Shafroth's "holier than thou" attitude.
"With Frank, he was always more right than everybody else," the source said. "I always found Frank impossible to deal with."
Another lobbyist said his main criticism of Mr. Shafroth was that he "sometimes is too attentive to some levels of detail and technicalities." The lobbyist also said he has "had tactical and strategic disagreements with Frank, but he works hard for the cities, and is out there pushing all the time."
Thomas Barker, an aide to Rep. Brian J. Donnelly, D-mass., called Mr. Shafroth "diligent and responsive to the concerns of members" of the tax-writing committees.
As for his future, Mr. Shafroth says he always thought he would run for political office, and doesn't rule out doing that someday. But he worries that the campaigning and the office itself would be too time-consuming.
"I don't spend as much time as I think I ought to spend with my family now, and I look at my friends who serve in both state office and at the local level ... and there's no time left over," he said.
"I've put in a lot of time at [my son's] soccer association, coaching the team, going to swim meets. I try to put in a lot of time with my kids and with different things I care about and believe about in the city."
But the time only seems to be part of it.
"I think I'm the sort of person who would like to be in elective office if I didn't have to run for it," Mr. Shafroth said.
"There would be a lot of sacrifices I'm not sure I'd want to make," he continued. "The biggest sacrifice would be the selling of myself for public office, which I don't think I could do."