Hill Staffers Switch to Campaigning for Public Office

Marc Korman has gained a new appreciation for his old bosses.

A former staffer to ex-Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., and Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., Korman said he understands members of Congress much better now that he is running for office himself.

“Many Hill staffers joke about their bosses’ stock answers to questions or stump speeches, but as a candidate, you start to see that you are meeting with so many different people so often, that you cannot be original every time,” said Korman, who is running for the Maryland House of Delegates in District 16, which includes portions of Friendship Heights, Bethesda, North Bethesda, Rockville and Potomac.

Korman is just one of a long list of former staffers who attempt to make the transition to elected office. According to CQ Roll Call Member Information and Research, 76 of the current House and Senate members previously served as congressional staff, though those numbers do not include state and local offices, such as the one Korman is running for.

Putting Staff Skills to Campaign Test

Not all staffing aspects translate well to the campaign trail, where being front and center can be counterintuitive to the art of staffing.

“As a staffer, particularly in a caucus room full of members, you try to keep a low profile when in a room full of elected officials. As a candidate, you’ve got to work every room you’re in like there’s no tomorrow,” said Andrew Platt, a former staffer for Rep. John B. Larson, D-Conn., who is running for the Maryland House of Delegates in District 17, which includes Rockville and Gaithersburg.

Korman and Platt both cited their understanding of policy as something voters appreciated, particularly in the D.C. region where many voters follow Congress closely.

“The policy knowledge and know-how you pick up on the Hill is often useful on the campaign trail. I think voters appreciate candidates who have tackled policy issues before, even at a different level of government or at a different scale,” Korman said.

And staffers have better expectations about what to promise voters. “A candidate who has been a staffer brings a better understanding of what you can promise on the trail and what is actually possible to get done in Washington. Having worked in Congress, you have a sense of what is realistic and what is not when laying out your ideas and vision,” said Doug Thornell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee national press secretary and current senior vice president of SKDKnickerbocker, a strategic communications firm in D.C.

In addition, former staffers understand the crucial role that fundraising plays in a campaign environment.

A GOP operative who declined to be named because of his ongoing work on current political campaigns highlighted fundraising as one of the key components to campaign success. “Staffers understand that the ability to be a successful fundraiser is to be a successful candidate. Staffers are often doing the legwork on the fundraising side. Candidates who haven’t served in a political role before are often reluctant to do it. When you have a staffer who understands that importance, they are more likely to do what is necessary to have the resources to win,” he said.

Korman agreed, saying: “The time spent fundraising is also frustrating to Hill staffers who want their bosses in the office for meetings or at hearings, but you cannot get elected without call time.”

“It’s hard to believe, until you’ve done it, how much time it all takes. Especially on a smaller campaign without a lot of staff, the candidate needs to do much of the work herself,” said Brianne Nadeau, a former scheduler for Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., who is running for the D.C. Council for Ward 1.

The Capitol Hill Blind Spots

There are some disadvantages that come with being a staffer and running for office, though, including being associated with Congress’ anemic approval ratings and an inability to translate the work done in Congress to the everyday people whom the laws affect. In addition, much of a staffer’s time is spent in Washington, D.C., imbued in national issues, which can be different from local ones.

“One potential blind spot for those who rely on experience in Washington is that it can be challenging to have their finger directly on the pulse of local issues. Potential candidates can overcome that by immersing themselves in the communities where they seek office and knowing what folks are really talking about at the local Rotary, VFW, PTA meeting or even the hair salons and barber shops,” said Brad Dayspring, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a former senior aide for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

“Translating what happens on Capitol Hill to ordinary people’s lives can be a challenge for former Hill staff,” Thornell said. “When you’re on the Hill, you’re spending all your time trying to figure out legislation, and in many cases you are speaking in jargon that is only understandable to other Hill staffers. Voters generally [couldn’t] care less about process things like reconciliation, markups or motions to recommit — they want to know how a particular policy will help their family.”

But the staffers running for offices are not daunted by the challenges.

“I actually love doing all these things and feel energized every time I am out knocking on doors,” Nadeau said.

Korman agreed. “I was a field staffer,” he explained. “[People] did not care about naming post offices or one-minute morning speeches. They wanted results.”