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Hill Climbers: Grimm Staff Strives to Make Boss Top of Class

Tom Williams/Roll Call

It’s day seven in the office of freshman Rep. Michael Grimm and the coffeemaker, watercooler and paper cups have just arrived on a metal dolly. The excitement is palpable, despite the caffeine drought that has plagued Room 512 in the Cannon House Office Building throughout the past week. 

“I didn’t drink water for the first two days,” said Carol Danko, communications director for the New York Republican. “We were so busy. I’m probably still dehydrated and don’t even know it!”

Grimm’s seven-person staff has been working around the clock to jump-start the new office. When they first arrived, desks needed to be moved, furniture needed to be swapped and computers needed to be plugged in. Yet the team still managed to introduce the lawmaker’s first bill, the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act.

But despite the pressures of starting from scratch, none of the staffers — all of whom have some sort of experience under their belts — reported any anxiety before starting with the Congressman on Jan. 3.

“It was such an easy transition for all of us. I didn’t even have that nervous, first-day-of-school feeling,” Danko, 30, said.

The New Jersey native started as a press intern for Rep. Tom Price in 2005 after she received her master’s in public administration from New York University. Her time as an undergraduate at Emory University gave her the necessary ties to the Georgia Republican’s office.

Although Danko served a brief stint as an editor for a fashion magazine after her undergraduate years, she ultimately landed a gig on Capitol Hill with Rep. Peter King, where she stayed on as legislative assistant for the New York Republican for four years.

Chief of Staff Chris Berardini was raised just north of Syracuse, N.Y., but has been in D.C. for the past 10 years. The 35-year-old has filled almost every role possible on the Hill, from unpaid intern to chief of staff for former Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.). After his boss decided to retire last year, Berardini quickly jumped on board with Grimm, a Member whose story is anything but ordinary.

“His background speaks for itself. Actually, it kind of yells for itself,” said Legislative Director Aaron Ringel, 30. “He’s a former Marine veteran of Desert Storm, he served in the FBI in some of the most high-profile and interesting cases an undercover agent could work on, and it segues very well into what he’s going to be doing on Capitol Hill with financial reform. Although he’s not going undercover in the Democratic Caucus.”

Ringel, born in Arlington, Va., received a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Kansas but later earned his master’s degree in U.S. foreign policy at American University. 

His first experience with a New York Member came from a stint as a legislative assistant for Rep. Vito Fossella (R), which eventually gave him the necessary experience to become Grimm’s campaign manager in 2010. Ringel was also a Marine combat veteran and gets along with the lawmaker well, even earning himself the nickname “Snappy” from Grimm.

The Congressman and his legislative assistant, Richard Hoffmann, also connected on the campaign trail. The 28-year-old, who was born in Grimm’s Staten Island-based district, graduated from Boston College in 2005 and went on to work for an accounting firm. But he was involved in state politics through his work with the Young Republicans, which is how he met Grimm. 

“Two days after the election, he offered me a job,” Hoffmann said. “And I said yes immediately. I had two weeks to move here.”

Another district native, Kerry Donnelly, uses her Staten Island roots — which trail back five generations — to aid her new role as a staff assistant. When dealing with constituents, the 23-year-old is able help pinpoint issues and voice constituents’ concerns to the Congressman. But the best the part of her job, the Fordham University alumna said, is “getting to hear another New York accent in D.C.” when she comes to the office every day.

Not everyone has to be from the district to do their job effectively. Ohio native Blaire Bartlett has been working as a scheduler on the Hill for the past five years. The 27-year-old started with former Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.) in 2005 and then went over to the office of Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) in 2009.

Legislative aide Emily Wilkinson may also come from the Midwest — she was born in Birmingham, Mich. — but she has family ties to New York and spent time working on various campaigns in the state. The 23-year-old knew she wanted to eventually work for a New York Member, but she got her start with Price as a legislative correspondent before Grimm hired her.

Although the diverse staff may come from all over the map, it’s clear that the group is united in its effort to push Grimm’s agenda.

“With such a huge freshman class, it’s easy to get lost,” Berardini said. “We want Michael to be in the top 10 percent, whether it’s legislatively or amongst leadership, just in every way.”

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