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Democratic Job Prospects Dim on K Street

Help wanted on K Street. (Democrats need not apply.)

That’s the not-so-subtle message many Democratic Hill staffers say they are getting about their employment prospects this fall.

With Republicans expected to make major gains in the midterm elections, Democratic aides have been watching anxiously as opportunities on K Street dry up.

Democratic staffers were in high demand downtown earlier this year, but most lobby shops and corporations have slowed or even stopped their searches to fill government relations jobs until after the elections.

“There’s certainly a lot of folks who are nervous about the elections and what that means for their future,” said a Senate Democratic staffer who recently left for the private sector.

A senior Democratic aide to a vulnerable House Member agreed.

“I absolutely think with the economy the way it is, everybody — Republican or Democrat — is concerned,” the aide said.

Although the aide said that her focus is on getting her boss re-elected, she added: “There’s always an inkling of what if [your boss loses]. Otherwise, you’d be behind the ball.”

Limited job prospects have left some Democratic staffers, particularly those working for vulnerable Members, doing everything they can to be ready to start their job search on Nov. 3. In addition to readying their résumés for potential lobbying gigs, staffers are meeting with former colleagues who have already made the jump downtown.

“A lot of people want to have coffee now,” Ogilvy Government Relations’ Gordon Taylor said about staffers seeking advice on how to navigate the job market.

Despite the tough market, several Democratic lobbyists said they point staffers to opportunities that could crop up in the Obama administration.

Congressional aides and K Streeters said they expect a wave of White House and agency staffers to leave after the midterm elections. So far, the Obama administration has maintained its ranks with little turnover. Those openings could help alleviate the saturation of Democratic aides out of work if Republican gains are as big as expected, lobbyists said.

Even if Democrats manage to retain control of the House, K Streeters and headhunters said they expect private-sector hiring to be much more competitive, especially given companies’ typical predilection toward hiring Republicans and as companies keep an eye toward the 2012 election.

“I don’t think they will be completely irrelevant,” McCormick Group headhunter Ivan Adler said. “But Democrats who don’t want to be in the minority are starting to take a look at what their options are off the Hill.”

House Democratic aides might not have all that many to choose from. If Republicans take at least 39 seats in the chamber, hundreds of rank-and-file staffers will be out of jobs and flooding the market.

House Democrats also would lose a leadership slot and all the jobs that come with it, and the majority party has significantly more resources at the leadership and committee levels to hire staff.

Still, a House Democratic leadership aide downplayed the idea that jittery staffers are already focused on downtown employment prospects.

“I think they are really directing most of their energy, effort and time to avoid having this issue pop up,” the aide said. “People only really start to focus on those things after it has happened.”

Still, some Democratic aides have already secured positions in the private sector before the expected market saturation can hit. Winning Strategies Washington announced Monday that Kristen Michaels, lead appropriations staffer for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), had joined its staff.

Others who were working for retiring Members have already exited, such as Kirstin Brost, who served as communications director for Senate Banking Chairman Chris Dodd (Conn.) but is now at SpaceX, a space exploration company. Corey Ealons, the former deputy chief of staff for Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) who most recently served as the White House’s director of African-American media, also just made a move to VOX Global, a public affairs firm.

K Streeters said a tightened job market might cause Democratic aides to rethink their hesitation about working for controversial industries.

So far, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The for-profit school industry has been under fire by the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats over its business practices and is seeking D.C. lobbyists. At least one Democratic lobbyist said that Hill aides from the party have rejected the job.

“They are looking to revamp their image and bulk up their presence here in Washington,” the lobbyist said. “But after having a conversation with people ... most of the Democrats said, ‘I can’t touch that one.’”

Democratic aides may take a cue from their Republican counterparts. It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans found themselves in a similar position. After Democrats won the House in 2006, the job market significantly tightened, and many former GOP staffers left the Beltway completely.

With few firms looking to bulk up on Republicans, many who wanted to stay in D.C. started their own ventures.

Take Graham Hill, for example.

The former Republican staff director on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, and Clayton Heil, who was deputy staff director and general counsel to the Senate Appropriations Committee and an aide to the panel’s former chairman, Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), started a firm, Ice Miller Strategies, that is affiliated with the Indiana law firm Ice Miller.

Since then, the shop has become bipartisan, with two Democrats signing on.

“From our point of view, it’s your skills, knowledge base, work ethic and personality, at least for us, that are more important than party affiliation,” Graham said.

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