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.
Cantor’s congressional operation employs about 35 people — in his leadership, personal and district offices — with a combined 2013 payroll of $3 million, according to data compiled by LegiStorm.
For Stombres and Cantor, the aim is to help them find jobs and keep up their spirits, a tall order as staff members soon will empty their desks, tossing files and old scraps of food into dumpsters lining the hallways.
During office transitions, many lawmakers themselves set up shop in temporary digs, trading the trappings of an ornate congressional suite for basement cubicles. Rouse recalls vacating his office on Dec. 12, 2004, though Daschle remained a senator through early January.
It’s an episode that many former lawmakers prefer not to relive. Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, who lost her Senate seat in 2010, and veteran Indiana Republican Richard G. Lugar, who was defeated in a primary two years later, both declined to comment on the experience. And an aide for Daschle said the former senator was unavailable.
All of them, though, have since moved into the private sector, and so have many from their staffs.
Nels Olson, who runs the Washington office of recruiting firm Korn/Ferry, says that the business community holds Cantor and his team in high regard, which helps pave the way for jobs downtown.
“Those individuals will have an opportunity to make a transition,” Olson says.
In the private sector, they may not command the salaries they would have if Cantor had remained in the House leadership, but many will be in demand on and off the Hill — including Stombres and aides such as health care policy guru Cheryl Jaeger.
“Certainly the folks that are closest to the king will be the most valuable,” says Ivan Adler, a headhunter with the McCormick Group. “Senior folks who are involved in policy or the floor operations are probably the most sought after. ... They certainly still have relationships with other people in leadership and in the caucus.”
Cantor, Adler added, “may be the perfect candidate for K Street,” initially commanding a seven-figure salary. Stombres says Cantor and his wife have just begun discussions about what the lawmaker might do after leaving Congress early next year.
Stombres says that within two days of his boss’s defeat, people started calling him, alerting him to job opportunities around town for aides at all levels. “I think everybody’s just beginning to explore,” he says.
As for his own departure from the Hill after 20 years, Stombres says he will soon be ready for a new professional endeavor. “I feel like I’m part of the Cantor family,” he says. “I want to make sure we get all the loose ends tied up here. I feel responsible not just to the staff but the transition to the next team.”
Republicans plan to pick Cantor’s successor as majority leader this week, setting off possibly more shuffling within the caucus, which could present more job opportunities for the Cantor alums.
Though only a couple of Daschle aides joined the staff of Nevada’s Harry Reid when he took over as majority leader, movement among offices on the Hill is common.
For example, Capitol Hill is dotted with former aides to Texas Republican Tom DeLay, who was forced to step down as House majority leader in 2005 after he was indicted for violating state laws on political fundraising. His former chief of staff, Tim Berry, runs the staff of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican who is most likely to replace Cantor as majority leader. Shannon McGahn, the staff director of the House Financial Services Committee, was a DeLay spokeswoman.
And even though DeLay and Speaker John A. Boehner reportedly had bad blood between them, Boehner’s current staff includes DeLay alums such as Ann Thorsen.
“It’s important in this town, you have to be your own person in addition to the person you work for,” says Richard Hunt, who runs the Consumer Bankers Association and is a former Hill aide. “A lot of these Cantor people are attractive candidates for both K Street and leadership, and not just in the House.”
Julian Ha, a headhunter for the firm Heidrick & Struggles, says the Cantor aides who have policy expertise and can generally navigate the halls of influence will do fine.
“They’re all putting their résumés together,” Ha says.
He added that as Cantor and Stombres make calls to help place their staff, they probably have two things in mind: helping people pay their bills, of course, and perhaps helping themselves. “They want to make sure they spread their alumni into other offices,” Ha says. “It serves multiple purposes. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also strategic.”
Rouse says he feels for the Cantor staffers.
“These folks, just like our folks, gave their heart and soul for him, believed in him and doing public service,” he says. “This has nothing to do with partisan politics; it has to do with being a decent human being. If your folks have been loyal, it’s like family, and that’s no different if you’re a Republican or Democrat.”
That’s something that Rouse and Stombres agree on. “When you see the amount of time and effort and sacrifice that the people on our team have given, loyalty is a two-way street,” Stombres says. “We want to make sure they all benefit.”
And, when it comes to money, at least, they may do well in the private sector, as Rouse — who joined the firm Perkins Coie this year — knows. “Less adrenaline, more money,” is how he sums up life on K Street.