Lofgren, a staff assistant for a Louisiana Republican representative, found an internship listing online and was able to land the spot, and later a full-time job.
You hear it over and over: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Nobody denies the importance of networking in landing a job on the Hill. But sometimes it’s not just what you know or who you know, but what you do.
Plenty of people have won entry into the Capitol Hill job market the old-fashioned way: They write a bell-ringer of a résumé, knock on every door, have a killer interview or two or three, and are home when the phone rings.
We interviewed more than three dozen current and former Hill staffers to find out how they got their start. “No, I didn’t know anyone,” and “persistence and dumb luck” came up frequently, along with several “I’m probably one of the few who didn’t know somebody.”
So, if you don’t know anybody, don’t despair (although you should probably get off your butt and get out and meet some bodies). Here’s how they did it; you can too.
Michael Drobac, senior policy adviser at Patton Boggs, pounded the pavement to get his first job in Washington. He came to town knowing nobody, toting two duffel bags.
“So I moved to D.C. after I’d finished my master’s degree at Stanford,” Drobac said. “I eventually volunteered for the Dole/Kemp campaign and was given an advance job for VP nominee Jack Kemp a few days later.”
The end of Michael Lewan’s plan to be an accountant came when he volunteered on the late Sen. George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign while he was in college.
“I traveled to a couple of states to do weekend work on the McGovern campaign in New Hampshire,” Lewan said. “I became very involved in the McGovern campaign, essentially where I lived. [Rep. Stephen J.] Solarz at the time was a state representative, so I met him there and we struck up a relationship and two years later he ran successfully for the House.”
All that legwork paid off. Solarz, as a freshman House member, hired him as his first chief of staff when Lewan was 23 years old.
Be Willing to Work for Free for a While
Christine Lofgren, a staff assistant to Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-La., began her career with him. She found an internship opening on the popular website BradTraverse.com, and after applying to a few different offices, she interviewed with them and was hired.
Barbara Weinstein, associate director at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, was required to have a political internship or job as part of her graduate program at George Washington University.
“I was right out of college, and I sent off my résumé to a bunch of members’ offices,” she said. “I kind of just randomly landed in Vic Fazio’s office.”
Ryan Gofus, a third-year student at American University’s Washington College of Law, got an internship offer from a congressman’s office that he hadn’t even applied to.
“Well, actually I submitted my résumé to work for Sen. [John] Hoeven from North Dakota, and I wasn’t selected for that internship,” he said. “The way I understand it, my résumé was passed around, and then I got a call from Congressman [Rick] Berg’s office maybe a month or so later, and I went in for an interview. That’s how it started.”
The Placement Office
Not every intern’s story is a matter of the blind hiring the blind. Some got professional help.
Joe Kasper, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., submitted his application to an internship program through the political science department while attending the University of Connecticut. He secured an internship with former GOP Rep. Rob Simmons.
“At that time in the delegation there was only Rob Simmons and Chris Shays from Connecticut,” Kasper said. “Rob Simmons, being a Vietnam vet, being a member of the House Armed Services Committee, I felt like that was a perfect fit for me.”
Sometimes you can even take advantage of another school’s resources.
Marisa Markwardt, who has since moved away from Capitol Hill back to South Carolina to work in social media management for the website Audiogon.com, had a similar experience. She got an internship with Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., though the University of South Carolina Washington Semester Program, even though she attended Clemson University.
“Any honor student from any college in South Carolina could apply for it,” Markwardt said. “I was able to, kind of through the program, find out who was the intern director in Rep. Clyburn’s office, and got in touch with him. It definitely was a big help just being a part of that program and having those connections already set up because they had people from the program intern in Rep. Clyburn’s office before.”
The Road Less Traveled
No matter how far you look down to see where it bends in the undergrowth, sometimes you just can’t tell. Sometimes it’s through a windshield.
Eric Edwards, a partner at Crowell & Moring, got his start in Washington by going beyond his job description while he interned for the late Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., during his last year at John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
“He hired me in the Chicago office to do casework. I ended up being his driver part time while I was also doing casework during the day because his full-time driver became ill,” Edwards said. “He asked me, after I passed the bar, what I would I like do, and I said I would like to come out to D.C. and do policy work. I started as a legislative correspondent in the Senate.”
And sometimes it’s just a matter of leaping to the other side of the fence.
David Marin, now a principal at the Podesta Group, did just that by securing his first job on the Hill — press secretary to Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va.
“I covered a couple of his re-elections. He would tell you that for years I gave him a hard time, including an endorsement of his opponent in 1996,” Marin said.
“We got to know each other a little better over the years, and I came to respect and admire his style and his approach. I definitely wasn’t thinking about a move to the Hill at the time. I was really enjoying community journalism. Then in 1999, the day before my wedding, Tom called and asked if I was interested in becoming his press secretary. He said, ‘I figure if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.