Joe Damico ’85 likes to get to the office at 6:30 a.m.—before Virginia’s Capitol Square and surrounding office buildings are bustling with state employees, legislators and visitors.
In the quiet of the early morning, with his Longwood degree hanging prominently above his computer and his office window framing a view of the state Capitol, he reads, answers emails and tries to prepare as best he can for the cascade of unknowns that will be thrown at him that day.
After 16 years with Virginia’s Department of General Services—the last 11 months as director—he’s grown accustomed to the unpredictability of his job.
“I find I get most of my work done before the sun rises and people start coming to the square,” said Damico, who was deputy director until his appointment as director by Gov. Ralph Northam became effective in January. “Then from there things can change in a moment. We have to react to an issue and resolve it as quickly as we can. It makes it exciting to come into work every day.”
Damico is the embodiment of a citizen leader, and his job is among the most important behind the scenes in state government. Although the director of the Department of General Services is hardly a household name, the work of the eight business units he oversees is crucial to the day-to-day functions of state government and the commonwealth writ large.
He provides oversight of the commonwealth’s more than $1 billion annual construction funding process and oversees the 7 million tests conducted each year in the state’s public health and environmental labs.
He holds the keys to the state’s fleet of 4,000 vehicles—the ones with the blue license plates—and acts as the state’s real estate agent, tracking more than 11,000 commonwealth-owned facilities and administering more than 500 lease agreements.
Around the Capitol Square alone, he manages more than 6.5 million square feet of office space. Upkeep of the Capitol grounds and Governor’s Mansion is on his list as well, and he serves as the commonwealth’s chief procurement officer. Other DGS units he oversees provide a wide variety of services for other state agencies, local governments and citizens, including graphic communications, surplus property management and state mail services.
And, if you’ve ever wondered who’s responsible for the pomp and circumstance of putting on the new governor’s inauguration every four years, now you know the buck stops with Damico. Being a problem-solver and a troubleshooter is part of what Damico loves most about his job—and the fact that no two days are ever the same.
“Is it a rainy day and there’s a roof leaking in a state building that needs to get fixed? Has a state vehicle been in an accident and we need to figure out how to recover the vehicle? Does the white powder found in a post office need to be tested at the state lab?
“Do we have an issue with a landlord at a leased property? Is there a construction hiccup at the new General Assembly Building construction site?” he said, ticking off just a few examples of the issues he might encounter during the daily course of business.
WORKING ON A BUILDING
One thing that’s keeping Damico busy these days is an overhaul of the Capitol Square complex that involves several high-profile current and future construction projects. The old General Assembly Building (GAB), which housed the offices of state lawmakers as well as committee rooms, legislative agencies and support offices, was demolished last year except for the 1912 historic limestone façade on two sides. A new building will be built with the same footprint—the first new office space constructed on the Capitol Square in decades. The new GAB construction project comes a little more than a decade after the state Capitol underwent a major restoration and expansion.
“We take great satisfaction in being responsible for the facilities where the people’s work is conducted and where citizens of the commonwealth can come and meet their legislators and see democracy in action,” Damico said. “Those facilities have to be inviting, and DGS is responsible for that.”
Other future projects around the Capitol grounds include the renovation of Old City Hall, a 19th-century Gothic National Historic Landmark; construction of a new parking facility downtown; and renovation of Morson’s Row historic townhomes on Governor Street.
Damico is also in charge of overseeing the construction of two new monuments on the Capitol grounds. Mantle, a tribute to Virginia Indians, is already complete and was dedicated earlier this year. Work recently began on Voices from the Garden—the first monument in the nation to honor the contributions of women to their home state. His agency also is renovating the Virginia War Memorial Carillon, a National Historic Landmark that memorializes World War I, and the Virginia War Memorial.
While the construction around the Capitol tends to get more attention because of the historic nature of the buildings, the volume of construction that Damico oversees around the state is equally impressive.
“People are often surprised when they realize the scope of the building that occurs on state property throughout the commonwealth and that DGS has responsibility for that,” Damico said, adding that his department reviews the design of state buildings and ensures safety code compliance.
NO TASK TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL
Damico has been with DGS since 2002, when he was hired as the deputy director. He came to that position armed not only with his Longwood degree in mathematics and computer science but also with almost 15 years of combined active and reserve service in the U.S. Army, including a stint during the first Gulf War when he was stationed in Nuremburg, Germany, at a medical hold facility for troops injured in the conflict.
His military training has stuck with him and informs the way he approaches his job at DGS. Case in point: Someone needed to shovel the snow off some steps leading to the Capitol during a 2016 snowstorm. An Associated Press photographer caught Damico, then deputy director, in the act of clearing the steps, shovel in hand.
“One thing you learn quickly in the military is you should be able to perform the duties and responsibilities of your team,” he said. “Whether it is shoveling snow, assisting with an OnTheSquare event or helping with crowd control at a protest at the Bell Tower, I’m happy to help with any other duties as assigned.”
Damico’s service as a state employee dates back to 1994, when he went to work for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. He first worked as a buyer and then as director of administrative services. While employed at Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, Damico earned two master’s degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University—one in public administration and one in health administration.
“DGS is a unique agency that provides critical services to both government and the public,” said Keyanna Conner, Virginia’s secretary of administration and Damico’s boss. “Joe’s dedication to supporting his team, customer service and providing value to the citizens of the commonwealth is valued.”
Less than a year after taking over as DGS director, Damico has already had an impact. One of the first changes he pushed for was increasing the availability of state laboratory testing for newborns from five days a week to seven. Previously if a baby was born over a weekend, the tests wouldn’t be processed until the lab opened on Monday.
“That’s going to benefit newborns, new mothers and new families because we are going to be turning around the results of that testing more quickly,” Damico said of the change that was mandated by the General Assembly during the 2018 session.
Damico and DGS are also managing OnTheSquareVA, a Gov. Northam initiative that aims to make the Capitol Square an inviting and enjoyable workplace for state employees. OnTheSquareVA events include a weekly food truck lunch gathering, fitness and yoga classes on the Capitol grounds and larger events such as the inaugural Governor’s Capitol Classic Car Show, a 5K run and a recent fishing tournament.
Damico also continues to strive for better transparency in procurement so that taxpayers have easy access to information regarding what state agencies are purchasing with their tax dollars.
“It’s very rewarding to be able to see how the decisions your agency makes impact the citizens of the commonwealth,” Damico said. “I think that’s what drives me and the dedicated staff at DGS. We are all motivated to do well by the citizens and state agencies that we serve. That’s what keeps me in state government.”
A LANCER FOREVER
Damico remains appreciative of how his years at Longwood shaped him personally and professionally.
Originally from Fairfax, he was recruited to play soccer at Longwood. Ultimately, he decided to play at the intramural level, but he fell in love with the small community feel and individualized attention that Longwood offered as soon as he stepped onto campus. Like many Longwood alums, he made lasting friendships during his years on campus. In fact, his freshman roommate is his oldest daughter’s godfather.
And now it’s his turn to recommend Longwood to prospective students. “I have friends who have kids who are looking for a school that focuses on the student, and I’m the first to recommend Longwood,” he said. “The academics can compete with just about any school across the state.”
And he often uses the framed Longwood diploma hanging on his office wall, with the grand columned portico of the state Capitol reflected in its glass, as a conversation starter.
“Oh, you want to know about Longwood?” he said, mimicking his pitch when someone comes to his office and makes note of his alma mater. “It’s a special place.”
Fun Five with Joe Damico '85
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Lauren WhittingtonPhotos by Parker Michels-Boyce