With 14 fingers between them, there’s never a shortage of joke material for Montana Sen. Jon Tester and his executive assistant, Luke Jackson: catching, texting, meat grinders.
During last month’s vote-a-rama — from the couch in Tester’s hideaway office in the bowels of the Capitol to a hallway just off the Senate floor — their laughter made an endless day of nonbinding amendment votes tolerable, at least for one particular hour spent with CQ Roll Call. Tester and his trusty 23-year-old body man/driver/assistant are sometimes required to spend nearly every waking hour of a workday together, with Jackson there to ensure the senator’s time is spent efficiently.
"When he's done, I'm done," Jackson said. "When he starts, I start."
This particular day started at 7:15 a.m., when Jackson picked Tester up for an early appointment.
"The person who's your executive assistant, you're probably around more than anybody else on staff," Tester said. "A lot of the time it's serious, and a lot of time you're having fun. ... It's pretty easy going; we don't take ourselves too seriously — except when people are waiting on you or when you have a vote. And he knows that."
The conversation from there slipped seamlessly between sarcasm and sincerity, and it became clear the missing middle three fingers on both their left hands are only the most superficial aspect of their bond. Reggie Love, President Barack Obama’s former body man, may be the most well-known political wingman in recent years, but Tester and Jackson rival that duo’s unique relationship.
“It’s not just a working relationship. They’ve become friends,” Tester spokeswoman Marnee Banks said. “After work, to unwind they’ll smoke a cigar and drink a beer, and then do it all again the next day.”
Or, as Tester put it in his patented biting humor, “Unfortunately, when my wife’s not here, he’s the last person I see at night and the first person I see in the morning — so it sucks.” (Cue the eruption of laughter.)
Jackson, a native of Lake Zurich, Ill., is one of a legion of assistants who can be found by senators’ sides as they move throughout the day — from the office to the subway, through the crowds of reporters who await the trains in the Capitol basement and to the Senate floor, and back again.
During votes, some can be found on a bench near the President’s Room, waiting to escort their respective bosses. Jackson keeps his eyes on the TV broadcasting C-SPAN, watching for which door Tester leaves through. If it’s slow, Tester might make an unexpected run for it in hopes of losing his aide, so Jackson stays on his toes.
“If you look at the floor now, you can’t see the Democrats very well right now, so I hate this camera angle,” Jackson said, pointing at a TV in Tester’s hideaway. “When it’s on the other one, it’s much better.”
While they try to keep the mood light, it's all business most days, and there is little room for error when a senator is scheduled every 15 minutes. Jackson records hallway interviews with reporters while staying three steps ahead, to make sure the elevator is there when Tester approaches. He also ensures Tester has the right papers in front of him to prep for the multitude of meetings on myriad issues: from a local airport in Montana to the Iran nuclear negotiations.
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Tester's after-hours calendar is packed as well, but the committee employs a separate assistant for that.
“Keeping him on time and making sure that he gets to votes and all that,” Jackson said of his duties. Tester quickly chimed in: “That’s what you do? I’ll be damned.”
Jackson spent a congressional recess early in his tenure learning the numerous nooks and passageways of the Capitol and finding the most convenient places to pull up the car when the senator has an appointment off campus. A driving test has been mandatory for the position ever since Tester missed a vote several years back because his assistant at the time got stuck in traffic using a GPS to navigate the city.
Jackson first worked for Tester as a researcher on the senator’s 2012 re-election, then was hired to his office a few months after the election. He graduated from the University of Texas in three years so he could join a congressional race that year, and he had a connection on the Tester campaign after a spring internship on Capitol Hill for Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
“I mean, we tell people now that I hired him when he had 10 fingers and I made him cut three of them off, because that’s part of the stipulation if you’re going to be my executive assistant,” Tester said. “But the truth is, he had good recommendations, we knew his work ethic and he did OK on the interview” — including that driving test.
Tester doesn’t remember sticking his hand in the meat grinder in the butcher shop on his family’s farm at age 9, but he remembers pulling it out and the drive to the hospital. About his own missing digits, Jackson likes to tell inquiring senators, “There are two types of people, those who are born like that and those who stick their hands in meat grinders. I usually get a laugh or two.”
As the two men stood in suits and cowboy boots in a back hallway off the Senate floor, they briefly delved into surviving childhood with seven fingers. Tester had the same group of friends from first grade to high school graduation; while the friends could tease each other, nobody else could. (And it’s unlikely many kids were looking to pick on someone of Tester’s stature.)
Jackson said it was much the same for him, but with three protective older brothers. “I think that’s where we get a very similar sense of humor,” he said. “You have to make fun of yourself first before anyone else can.”
Like many other low-level staffers, Jackson dreams of a bigger role in a Senate office one day. But for now he can still be found three steps ahead of Tester and ready for the senator's next joke.
“Other kinds of personalities wouldn’t work, and you’d know that pretty damn quick,” Tester said. “He’s been with me a couple years and, you know, he’ll go at some point in time and we’ll get somebody else and have to cut their fingers off. And we’ll move on.”
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