Heard on the Hill

Politicians Worry About Millennials, but They’re Already Running the Hill

What happens when the chief of staff is mistaken for the intern

Joe Hack became chief of staff to Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., at 27. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Joe Hack sat in a weekly lunch for Republican chiefs of staff and listened to a speech on what to do about millennials.

At the time, he was 27 and running Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer’s office. “I’m at a table with a bunch of graybeards, [and] they’re moaning at the trials and tribulations of this next generation. I’m kind of sitting there. All of a sudden it dawns on them that I’m one of them,” he said.

All eyes turned his way. “Joe, you are a millennial,” one chief said. “You should be telling us how to do this.”

[Women Who Run the Show]

Hack, 31, has gotten used to being the youngest in the room. He started as an intern in Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s office and rose to be Fischer’s chief in just nine years. Listening was his secret weapon.

“I participate in the Senate leadership staff meetings, so these guys — mostly women to be honest — are very well seasoned, very well respected, absolute pros. When I participated in these initially, I just listened,” he said.

He added, “I spoke up when there was an interest of Sen. Fischer’s, obviously, but I tried to do so selectively in a thoughtful way that I knew would help me earn respect.”

What’s my age again?

Matt Klapper became Sen. Cory Booker's, D-N.J., chief of staff at 31., (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Matt Klapper became Sen. Cory Booker's, D-N.J., chief of staff at 31. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

When Matt Klapper, 35, became chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey four years ago, the lessons came thick and fast.

“Having little to do with my age, and more to do with being relatively new to the Hill, I had a steep learning curve when I became chief of staff — if anything, people were eager to lend a hand and help show me the ropes,” he said.

And sometimes people do a double-take when a millennial walks in the room. Hack has noticed that when meeting with outside groups. “I’ve seen a look of surprise on many faces when I’ve introduced myself,” he said.

Mitchell Rivard knows that look too. “There’s definitely been a few times where … someone has made a half-hearted joke about how long I’ve been interning in the office. I try to take it in stride,” said Rivard, 28, chief of staff to Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan. “When you’re a younger chief, you have to work really hard to demonstrate knowledge on a whole host of issues.”

But Rivard is quick to point out that learning is a two-way street. Millennials “bring a ton of new and fresh ideas and ways to think about things,” he said, offering social media as an example.

“Capitol Hill is, I would say, probably a little bit behind the times when it comes to the transition of how we communicate,” he said. Yet for “young people, it’s just almost innate, intuitive to them how to tweet or use Snapchat or Instagram or find ways where we can mesh old ways of doing things with new ways of doing things.”

In the fishbowl

Traditions on the Hill can be slow to change, and not everyone sees that as a bad thing.

“I feel like it’s kind of a rite of passage that as you get older, you at least initially discount what the youngster says to you. When I was in the district, oftentimes I would be the youngest person in the room by 15 to 20 years. That made me study up more on what I was doing,” said Chris Carter, who works for GOP Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina.

Carter, now 31, became Hudson’s district director at 25 and chief of staff at 29.

“When you get constituents who come up to D.C. to lobby … I do think it’s a little surprising to them when they come in and are talking about a very important issue and they’re sitting across from a 20-something who’s in a senior role in an office,” he said.

Things can get even tricker when you oversee staffers who are older than you. That happened to Hack, who found himself managing an experienced legislative director who had been on the Hill for decades. He leaned into the dynamic and learned from it. “A little humility can go a long way,” he said.

Not the ‘me’ generation

Between laziness, entitlement, narcissism, and avocado toast, millennials get a bad rap. Busting those stereotypes is part of the job, several young chiefs said.

“Work really hard and you’ll eventually stand out,” Carter said. “Keep that sense of idealism. Especially up here, people wear their disillusionment as a badge of honor or something. I think it’s the exact opposite. You have to be idealistic to do the work.”

Passion shouldn’t be a dirty word, said John McCarthy, 27, who runs the office of Democratic Rep. Brendan F. Boyle of Pennsylvania.

“If you sell it as: I’m really passionate about my work, I believe in our overall mission and I’m just going to constantly find ways to add value … I think if you lead with that attitude, which isn’t always the millennial attitude, but if you lead with that, it will allow you to move up quickly,” he said.

Critics say the staff on Capitol Hill skews young because of low pay, a relentless schedule and so-so benefits that drive out workers who want kids or to save for retirement. Low-level aides, such as staff assistants, make roughly $30,000 a year. But for chiefs, the pay can be rewarding and the goals even more so.

“My boss [Booker] likes to say, ‘purpose, not position,’” Klapper said. “I’ve found that won’t only help you keep your compass and stay happy, it will help you accomplish far more.”

Others echoed the advice to keep your head down and let your work speak for itself. That’s what Caroline Cash, 29, chief of staff for Rep. James R. Comer, did. She came right from the district where she was the Kentucky Republican’s campaign manager.

“At first, when I was new to the Hill, I was super intimidated. But fortunately, I’ve had a lot of great people offer mentorship,” she said.

A mentor gave Rivard this piece of advice that he passes on to others: “If you don’t know the answer to something, it is completely OK to say, ‘I do not know but let me get right back to you on that.’ If you approach things in that kind of constant willingness to learn, the opportunity to be a chief of staff at the age of 28 became a possibility.”

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