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Hill Climbers: 'Into the Fire' on Way to Washington

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Carnes’ student government stint at North Greenville University helped the broadcast media major realized he wanted to be involved in politics, not just report on the issues.

Ben Carnes, the son of a pastor from Greenville, S.C., grew up on conservative values and Southern hospitality.

Now a staffer on Capitol Hill, Carnes has two full-time jobs: Communications director for Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and single dad to two young children.

Carnes went to school at North Greenville University, a small Southern Baptist school in the northwest part of the Palmetto State. He initially decided to major in broadcast media, but he later had a change of heart about the direction he wanted to take his career.

“I decided a little late that I probably didn’t want to go strictly into broadcasting — that I wanted to get involved in politics,” Carnes said.

It was then that he became involved in the student legislature, opening his eyes to the issues he would become most passionate about, specifically abortion. He became vice president of the college Republicans on the North Greenville campus.

“The life issue — abortion, was kind of the one that really propelled me into it,” he said.

Given his major in broadcast media and his desire to become more deeply involved in politics, Carnes decided to host a politically focused radio show on campus.

But looking back on it, Carnes is a little embarrassed by the experience.

“Most people look back and cringe a little bit about the way they were in college. But few people are so presumptuous that they think they should have their own radio show to broadcast their not-yet-fully-formed opinions,” he said. “So I was a bit of a conservative caricature there for a while.”

Carnes’ first real foray into politics then came when he interned in the district office of Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C. After graduating, he was “thrown directly into the fire” when he became the only full-time, paid staffer in South Carolina for Sam Brownback’s short-lived presidential campaign in 2007.

“I went from just graduating college to — I was a surrogate for a presidential candidate, senior senator out of Kansas,” he said.

When Brownback failed to place second in the Ames Straw Poll, the campaign began to wind down and Carnes began a new job search. After a few months, he took a job with the National Pro-Life Alliance for one year — an experience that served as “a wake-up call,” he said.

“It became pretty obvious that the financial side of things was the sole focus, almost exclusively — so it was more a fundraising experience than it was a grass-roots lobbying operation.”

But it was during that year that Carnes first became acquainted with Franks, who would later hire him.

A self-described jack of all trades, he thrives in the unpredictable environment that is Capitol Hill, where one minute he finds himself writing a speech, and the next turns toward researching and writing a press release on the greater sage-grouse, for example.

And it’s his ability to know “a little bit about everything” that makes him so welcome in Franks’ office.

Music is also a passion for Carnes, who plays drums, guitar, mandolin, banjo and some piano — and it’s something he said he has considered trying to integrate on Capitol Hill, where there are plenty of other talented musicians to be found, including among members of Congress.

“The difficult thing would be to sync that with also being a communications director,” he said.

Days are often long and busy enough without having to haul instruments up to Capitol Hill.

It’s not unusual for a Hill staffer to sleep with one eye on his or her inbox, but not a lot of them are single parents waking up to check on two kids at the same time. Carnes is going through a divorce and has custody of the children.

“I’m to the point now where I’ll often roll over at 2 or 3 in the morning and just — it’s like a reflex to turn on your phone really quick and check and turn it off — it’s a little bit worrying, I guess,” he said.

But Franks has been more than accommodating and has given plenty of leeway for Carnes to see to his family obligations.

“The way he treats his staff engenders loyalty,” Carnes said.

“He is exactly the same behind the scenes as he is when you see him on camera — I consider myself extremely lucky,” he said.

Send news of hires and promotions on Capitol Hill to climbers@rollcall.com.

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