Rep. Rob Woodall (right) is one of 81 current Members who once served as paid Congressional aides. The current crop of candidates believe their Capitol Hill experience and knowledge of the process will boost their electoral chances, despite Congress' dismal approval ratings as of late.
Just last month, Richard Hudson had an office in Rayburn House Office Building and, like thousands of other staffers, counseled his boss. But now the former chief of staff to Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) is mounting a campaign to become Conaway’s colleague.
He’s not alone in his ambition to move from behind-the-scenes power broker to Member. There are at least a dozen former Congressional aides running for Congress this cycle, and they all face a unique set of challenges during a time when most Americans view Congress as an institution with particularly deep derision.
Hudson, who is running in North Carolina’s 8th district, served as a district director for former Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) and knows the region well. He said his Tar Heel State experience is key, but his Capitol Hill knowledge would be a boon to his effectiveness should he win the seat.
“I can talk about conservative ideas and conservative solutions, but I also know how to turn those into law. I think I can be effective day one as a Member of Congress,” Hudson said in an interview. “Whereas other folks, this may be a second career and it may take them awhile to figure out how to turn the lights on and how to find the way to their committee room.”
Hudson said he isn’t worried about his opponents painting him as a Beltway insider because, he said, he’s not one.
“I didn’t quite fit in with the whole Washington set,” he explained, noting he drives a Chevy Suburban and owns a lot of guns. “The inability to find sweet tea or Cheerwine made Washington, D.C. — it was never going to be a permanent situation for me.”
Other candidates framed their D.C. experience in the same way: They’ve spent enough time here to understand how to make the sclerotic democratic process work for constituents, but they are still in tune with their home districts.
Esther Kia’aina, who worked on the Hill for about 20 years, most recently as chief of staff for former Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), is running for the open seat in the Aloha State’s 2nd district. Far from moving away from her inside-the-Beltway experience, she emphasizes it.
Kia’aina told Roll Call that her experience would give her a key edge in the often gridlocked body.
“I wouldn’t be going there green,” she said. “In other words, I’m not going there idealistically, believing that everything works like clockwork. I already know how difficult it is to get things done.
“Given my experience, I know a lot of things can still be done,” explained Kia’aina, who now works for a state agency. “And it takes someone who knows how to navigate things through the system to achieve that.”
Patrick Scates, once the district director for then-Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-Ind.), is running for his former boss’s old seat, and he has less to worry about when it comes to the taint of Washington. He spent almost four years working in the district.
Scates said the transition from staffer to candidate has its advantages.
“You’re driving to these events, just like you have other times, and you have to remind yourself: ‘Oh these people are coming to hear my thoughts and ideas,’” Scates said. “Always before, you were speaking for the Member and you had to stay on the Member’s message. ... It’s a little easier [now] because you’re speaking for yourself.”
There are 81 current Members who served as paid Congressional aides in their careers. Affable freshman Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) is one of the longest-serving aides to successfully make the leap, having worked for Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) for about 15 years before succeeding him. Woodall said his lengthy Hill career wasn’t a negative in his House bid, but rather a plus.
He explained that working on myriad issues for Linder over the years helped him crystallize what he believed and what his position was on just about every issue. That was of use when he hit the campaign trail.
And he saw no electoral trouble based on his time spent in the capital. He said he told voters, “Yes, we’ve spent a lot of time working for the 7th district of Georgia. I’m not embarrassed about that. I’m proud of it. I chose that life!”
Woodall’s take: The animus toward Washington is rooted in unhappiness with the artifice that many see in D.C.
“I think authenticity is what there is a thirst for and much of the anger you see directed toward Washington is because you see a bunch of phonies or you see a bunch of self-serving people,” he said.
But, he said, voters’ gut sense wins out when evaluating former staffers running for Congress.
“That Washington taint: They can tell when they’re talking with you whether the city got its hooks in you.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.