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Hill Climbers: GOP Majority Is Draw for Staffers

Tom Williams/Roll Call
From left: Cielo Villasenor, DJ Jordan, Lori Salley, Wendy Knox and Andy Karellas have recently joined the Republican staff for the House Small Business Committee.

A variety of paths brought five new staff members to the House Small Business Committee. One staffer did her first internship with the panel almost 20 years ago. Another grew up in a family that owned a small business. A few have degrees in business administration.

But for all the new staffers, the draw is the same: working for the Republican majority.

Staff Director Lori Salley was the first hire of the bunch. The 42-year-old was brought on to help make the additional hires. 

Her first stint with the committee was in 1991, when she started as an intern. Two years later, the California native moved to the office of former Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). In her 18 years with Pryce, Salley did almost everything, including roles as legislative assistant, legislative director and chief of staff.

When Pryce retired in 2009 and went to work for a law firm, Salley went with her.

After a brief stint running a nonprofit organization, Salley’s journey has come full circle as she has made her way back to the Small Business Committee.

“I’ve always loved the Hill, and it was an opportunity to get back and work for a Republican majority,” she said.

Andy Karellas started several weeks ago as professional staff member. The job, he joked, is like “a legislative assistant position, but on steroids.” 

The 30-year-old hails from the small town of Mexico, Mo., where his family owned a Greek steakhouse. Although his family eventually had to sell the restaurant, it inspired Karellas to champion small-business issues.

His first Capitol Hill experience came after he graduated from Webster University, when he secured a gig as staff assistant with former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.). He stayed with Talent from 2003 to 2007 and eventually became a legislative assistant. Karellas left to work for the Commerce Department.

After two years, he decided it was time for a change and moved to Chicago to do government relations for Aon Corp. But when Karellas realized that the winters were far too cold, he decided to move back to D.C. and work on the Hill.

Press Secretary Wendy Knox also has an aversion to cold temperatures; the Florida native said she misses the sandy beaches of her hometown.

“The Potomac just doesn’t quite cut it for me,” she said.

Knox, 28, graduated from Liberty University with degrees in communications and business administration. She came to D.C. to work as a staff writer for Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group.

But she ultimately wanted to work on the Hill. In 2007, she landed a press secretary gig with former Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.). Knox stayed with the Congressman until his retirement last year.

Since starting with the committee last month, Knox has sought advice from her husband, Jason, who works on the Senate Budget Committee.

Cielo Villasenor, the youngest of the group, was hired as press assistant and new-media coordinator. The 23-year-old Californian went to George Washington University, where she earned a degree in political science. During her time there, Villasenor did an internship with Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and paralegal work for a law firm on K Street.

After graduation, Villasenor worked for Political Media Inc. as director of new media. But she has a long-standing interest in politics; at 16, she lobbied for a new library and community center in her hometown.

In 2009, Hunter hired Villasenor as staff assistant. She also handled social media, which has helped her in her current role. Villasenor has spearheaded the Small Business Committee’s new Facebook page.

Communications Director DJ Jordan, 33, may have an interest in politics, but he also has an interest in sports, which he actually pursued first. After graduating from Liberty University, where he played football, the Virginia native landed a job with Comcast SportsNet. Jordan worked as a production assistant there for two years.

In late 2003, Jordan moved to CNN to work as an electronic graphics operator for Wolf Blitzer’s show. The show inspired him to seek a more editorial job, and he eventually left to work for Fox News as a field producer and assignment desk editor, where he covered plenty of committee hearings.

While reporting on the Hill, Jordan realized he wanted to work there. He landed a gig with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) in July 2008 and stayed on as communications director until he secured his post with the committee in February.

“That’s the story of my career: just getting bugs and coming closer and closer to fulfilling them,” he said.

Submit news of hires and promotions on Capitol Hill to Hill Climbers here.

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