The phone is ringing in Ald. Michael D’Amato’s office. Chances are that the person who picks up the receiver isn’t the 3rd District alderman, but his 23-year-old legislative assistant, Crystal Graf. Although Graf fields 40 phone calls and 100 e-mails a day, digs up answers for sometimes-disgruntled constituents, and attends meetings from 8 in the morning to 10 at night, she is unfazed by the fast-paced job. “[As a legislative assistant], you actually get to play the advocate [and] help people and see an end to the problem,” Graf says, explaining the appeal of her work. Graf, who graduated from Marquette University in 2002 with a degree in journalism and a minor in political science, never expected to work in politics. She grew up in Minnesota and started writing for Fairmont, Minnesota’s The Sentinel when she was 15. In Milwaukee, she wrote for the Business Journal and interned for Ald. Michael Murphy before joining D’Amato’s office in February 2003.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how much power they do have as a neighborhood, and particularly when you have an organized neighborhood group.”
As a reporter, Graf says, she was frustrated that she could not get involved with issues she was writing about. “You never got to be part of a certain cause,” Graf says. As a legislative assistant, Graf’s job includes handling constituents’ calls, attending committee and neighborhood meetings, and speaking on D’Amato’s behalf when the alderman is unable to attend. She also finds answers and solutions to constituents’ problems and questions, which range from block party permits to water main breaks. Resident concerns vary by season, Graf said. Noise complaints are common in the summer, while winter parking regulations are a problem during the colder months. The most unusual resident concern? Graf recalls that one resident wanted all grills in the city banned because of carcinogens. Others have called asking for help getting their dry cleaning back. “It’s kind of interesting because people always talk about how they want less government in their lives and how government is so expensive, but whenever something comes up, they’re usually the first to call us,” she says. Her journalism skills, like interviewing and investigating, have been especially helpful when looking for answers to constituent complaints. “Usually you try to deal with it in a patient manner and try to explain the situation,” she says. “Most of the time they call our office when they’re frustrated.” How many hours does she work a week? “A lot,” Graf says, laughing. “This type of job, it doesn’t stop. There are always issues in the community that need to be worked out.” But Graf doesn’t see her work as just a job. “It’s a service,” she says. “You’re working for the benefit of the community.” The best part of the job? Helping people solve problems, Graf says. The biggest difficulty? Balance. “Wherever [D’Amato] cannot be, it’s where I plan to be,” Graf says. When asked what residents can do to improve their neighborhood, Graf advised getting involved in the community. “I don’t think a lot of people understand how much power they do have as a neighborhood, and particularly when you have an organized neighborhood group like the Riverwest Neighborhood Association,” she says. And what is it like working with the super-busy, politically shrewd D’Amato? “I think the one thing that first really surprised me when I became his aide was how hard the guy works. He has incredible commitment to the job,” Graf says. “The one thing that I’ve always learned from him, is that if somebody says no, then you find another way…He does not give up.” Her admiration of D’Amato keeps Graf from becoming cynical about Milwaukee’s reputation for corrupt politicians. Reflecting on local government scandals of the past several years, Graf says, “In the last year Milwaukee has had an ugly reputation…[But] you can really see people who have a good ethic and those who don’t. I’m really confident that I’m working for a person who has a good work ethic.” Graf says she has no plan to go into politics herself. “Right now it’s a position that works very well for me because I’m able to…help a lot of different people and (those) are the things that I really like about the job.” At the end of the interview, amid ringing phones, Graf reflected on her dedication and passion for her work. “Occasionally on this job it will come up: ‘Oh, you’re younger, you’re female, you can’t handle it.’ And my reaction is I’m confident that I can…It’s a personality trait. A lot of times throughout my life people have said, no you can’t, and I’ve always said yes I can, I can do this.” It’s a conviction D’Amato shares. “Crystal is incredibly dedicated to the constituency and the district,” he says. “I was a little apprehensive knowing that she was right out of college, but I have no concerns. She knows exactly what she is doing.” Meet legislative assistants to Riverwest’s other elected representatives in the following months.