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Hill Climbers: Surviving a Member’s Scandal

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Memphis native Hannah Walker weathered the storm of a Member scandal and is now the Washington-based director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute.

Hannah Walker spent years as a staffer on Capitol Hill, including time in an office at the heart of a scandal. Still, the Memphis native never lost her passion for public service or the institution.

Recently, Walker left her post as legislative director in the office of Florida GOP Rep. Tom Rooney — who was not involved in the scandal — to become the Washington-based director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute, an organization representing food retailers and wholesalers.

For Walker, the lowest point in a nearly five-year career of working on the Hill came in September 2006, when it was discovered that her boss, former Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), had texted explicit messages to an underage House page.

While Foley’s House career came to an abrupt end, Walker, who had moved to Foley’s re-election campaign, persevered.

She stayed put, working as a liaison for Florida’s Washington, D.C., office before moving back to Capitol Hill to work for Rooney in January 2009 after serving as his campaign director in the 2008 general election.

Her final year as a law student played out against the backdrop of the 2000 presidential election. The razor-thin election and Supreme Court drama led the aspiring lawyer to become hooked on politics.

As law school drew to a close in May of that year, Walker was conflicted between a life in the field she was currently studying and one in politics. Her solution to the inner turmoil: a chat with her father.

“My dad and I were talking a lot, and he was like, ‘You’re a lot more interested in politics than you are in practicing law. Maybe we should talk about this.’ So I took the bar exam and bought a one-way ticket and moved up [to Washington]. Not knowing a soul, not having a job, not knowing what I was getting into,” Walker said.

In March 2001 she signed on as a researcher for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. (She would serve a similar role for its House counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, in 2003.)

Through her position at the NRCC, Walker caught wind of an opening in Foley’s office. By 2005, she became his legislative assistant, where she served until he resigned.

Rather than dwell on the negative, Walker prefers to highlight the more positive aspects of her time working for Foley.

“I’ve always just tried to focus on what he taught us and what we were encouraged to do and then just move on,” she said. “He instilled in us the passion to work for the people.”

Afterward, she turned her attention to the 2008 campaign.

Rooney’s brother, then a member of South Florida’s Water Management District Board, told Walker that the then-
Congressional candidate was in need of some organizational help for his bid.

Starting out as a volunteer during the primary, Walker moved up to campaign director for the fall election. And once victory had been secured, she made her way back to Capitol Hill.

Last fall, almost three years after her return, she began giving serious thought to a career change.

Like retiring Members exasperated by the daily political warfare, Walker, too, began to wonder if she could accomplish more outside the marble corridors than within them.

“I looked at the end of last year, and we didn’t have any great accomplishments to be proud of … and it just sort of wears you down after a little bit,” she said.

The deliberative lawyer took over, as she consulted with many trusted friends and colleagues about leaving the place she loved.

Though fatigue with gridlock played a role in her departure, Walker still holds the institution and the people it represents in the highest esteem.

“I loved every minute of working on the Hill, I really did. [It’s] such an honor … to serve 700,000 constituents and that you get to work for them and with them on some pretty exciting things. It was amazing,” she said.

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