Calling It Quits Before Re-Election Season

Did the government shutdown leave a bad taste in your mouth? Maybe it was the final straw in your Capitol Hill career. But there’s the delicate issue of timing, and a member of Congress with a tough re-election bid can be extra sensitive to staff departures. Hill Navigator has some thoughts on how to leave on the best terms possible — even during a tough re-election.

Q. With the government shutdown, [it] seemed like a great time to leave the Hill! My boss is up for re-election next year, and I don't want to leave in the middle of a campaign. Is there a cut-off date for leaving the office of a member in cycle? Thank you!

While I can’t give you an exact date, I can provide some guidance. Leaving an office — especially the office of a member facing a tough re-election — is more about how you leave than when you leave. It’s possible to leave on wonderful terms just a few weeks shy of the primary. And it’s also possible to stay until the dogged end without so much as a friendly “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

So ask yourself: How fundamental is your role to the re-election?*

Yes, Hill staffers are all essential in their own ways, but the foreign policy legislative assistant and office scheduler have very different functions in day-to-day campaign operations. If your boss depends on your position for the campaign (scheduler, press secretary, chief of staff among them) then you should leave with ample time to train someone else to replace you. Bosses in tough re-elections tend to bring staff on board who understand this is part of their job. If you’re weeks shy of a tough primary and an attractive job offer comes through, try to delay the start date. You’ll need more than two weeks to hire and train your replacement.

If your role is not directly connected to the campaign function (as many policy positions are) then time your transition to avoid interfering or detracting from the boss’s focus. If you need to leave before the big race, go ahead — but it would be wise to take the weekend to go canvassing and garner some goodwill. And remember, the tone in which you leave the office is how they will remember you, long after you (and your shining accomplishments) are gone.

*Hill Navigator knows that official government business does not include campaign work. There are rules for specific positions that have leeway, though most offices expect official business to be separate from campaign actions. But this question is answered in the spirit in which it was asked. If you’re smart enough to work on Capitol Hill, you’d be wise to stay mindful of tough re-elections and adjust your actions accordingly.