Heard on the Hill

Staffer Guide: Stay in Touch

Jonathan Smith tells staffers to do your best with the job you have

Jonathan Smith is chief of staff to Washington Rep. Derek Kilmer. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Jonathan Smith moved up from intern to chief of staff on Capitol Hill by never losing touch with people with whom he has worked.

Now chief of staff to Washington Democratic Rep. Derek Kilmer, Smith started as a college intern, first for then-state Sen. Gary Peters, and later for Sen. Carl Levin, both Michigan Democrats. 

The first person who hired him for Levin’s office became a friend “and we go running together most weekends,” said Smith, 39.

“It’s less about how to stay connected in a network and more about forming really genuine, meaningful relationships with people,” he said. “Keep people who are smart and thoughtful and give good advice.”

After graduating, Smith had a temporary job in Levin’s office, then moved to staff assistant and to legislative correspondent over a three-month period. At the time, Levin was the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and following the 2000 presidential election, Smith took on the task of researching all of President George W. Bush’s national security nominees.

When former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords switched to caucus with the Democrats in May 2001, it tipped the balance of power in the Senate to the Democrats. Levin’s staff was now part of the majority on Armed Services, and Smith took on an administrative role there for two years.

His advice to staffers: Don’t try to take a job that somebody already has —  do the best with the job you have.

“The folks that are really successful say, ‘OK, I’m a staff assistant. I’m going to be the best staff assistant I can be. Rather than seeing what cool stuff other people are doing, I’m going to look for the places where it seems like things aren’t getting done and take on those things,’” Smith said.

At age 25, he decided national security policy wasn’t his main interest and he went to law school at the University of Michigan. He returned to D.C. as an associate at K&L Gates.

In 2007, about a year after Democrats had won back the House, Smith returned to the Hill as a senior legislative counsel for Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell and worked on economic and judiciary issues.

“A friend of mine who was chief of staff called me and said, ‘Is there any chance you would be interested in doing this?’ I thought about it and decided it was something I wanted to give another shot,” he recalled. “I think I took a $100,000-a-year pay cut. … It just seemed like something that would be rewarding.”

When Peters was elected to the House in 2008, Smith became his legislative director. When Kilmer joined the chamber four years later, Smith became his chief of staff.

He offered three reasons for taking the chief-of-staff job: the sense that it was a new professional challenge, feeling that Kilmer was going to be a great member, and the pay raise.

“I never had as a goal, ‘I want to be a chief of staff.’ That wasn’t really my starting point,” Smith said. “My goal has always been to have a rewarding career in public policy.”

Smith has two children and while the balance is difficult, he said it’s doable. He drops his kids off at their school on Capitol Hill every morning.

“You have to find a system that works for you and your family,” he said. “It’s easier to just say, ‘I’m not going to [have] breakfast,’ and that gives me the opportunity to get quality time with my kids in the morning.”

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