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The night of Eric Cantor’s defeat, his longtime aide and chief of staff, Steven Stombres, held a conference call with his team — about three dozen people whose professional worlds had just collapsed.
These staff members had presumed they were working for a future speaker of the House, only to learn that they would be out of a job, many within weeks.
Stombres assured them he would do everything possible to help them land new jobs. So did Cantor the next day, when he met privately with his staff in the Capitol, according to people familiar with the session. “We’re not going to rest until everybody on this team has found a good place to land,” says Stombres, who plans to leave the Hill.
Though Cantor’s defeat was a shock and it left his staff in turmoil, such things have happened many times on Capitol Hill, where most jobs are secure only until the next election. And unlike factory workers forced to scrimp when their plant shuts down, congressional aides of the caliber found in leadership offices — who like Cantor himself typically have many opportunities to pick from — could easily end up with a significant pay raise.
Still, it’s an emotionally draining, disheartening, anxiety-filled experience. Just ask Pete Rouse.
The veteran Senate aide had spent 19 years with Democrat Tom Daschle of South Dakota and was his chief of staff when Daschle lost to Republican John Thune in the autumn of 2004.
“It was like a smack in the face,” recalls Rouse, who thought about retiring but instead — though reluctantly at first — accepted an offer to be chief of staff for freshman Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. He took the job only on the condition that Obama understood that his initial focus was finding new professional homes for Daschle aides.
“I didn’t really think I could do justice to him to help him get started,” Rouse recalls. But Obama understood that part of Rouse was better than none. “He thought that was OK, if he got a third of my time.”
Rouse co-chaired Obama’s presidential transition team and served as a top White House adviser until December, when he left for the private sector. More than 100 people on Daschle’s staff lost their jobs, and Rouse’s office inside the Capitol morphed into an employment center/war room of sorts. Rouse says he and Daschle made every effort to find job openings and then made calls on behalf of aides who were under consideration.
“I remember Tom Daschle himself saying, ‘If anybody from the most-junior to the most-senior needs me to talk to anybody, I will do it,’ ” Rouse says.