When most people think of their dream vacation, they have reveries about eating their way through Paris or chilling on a pristine beach in the Caribbean. But if you’re a Hill staffer and it’s election season, then it’s likely you’re on “vacation” holed up in a battleground district or state, lucky to just grab one meal sitting down each day.
Relaxing is the furthest thing from your mind.
With the Capitol complex quiet during the pre-election recess, many congressional aides from both sides of the aisle have decamped to join their bosses and party compatriots on the campaign trail. Some staffers are looking to be part of the action or to forge or freshen up professional ties that could help give their careers a bounce. Staffers who work for members in tough re-election contests aren't just hoping to save their boss' jobs — they might just save their own Hill gigs as well.
That goes for a host of top staffers who have headed to battlegrounds. Matthew Lehner, a spokesman for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., is on loan to her re-election campaign. Alex Siciliano, communications director for Rep. Cory Gardner, is working on the Colorado Republican's Senate bid. Richard Carbo works for vulnerable Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., and has taken a leave of absence to help out on the campaign in the Peach State.
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, doesn’t have to worry about his job, but he has taken vacation time to help the Republican party in his home state of North Carolina where Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan is in a fierce contest with Republican state speaker Thom Tillis.
Steel told CQ Roll Call that he’s working seven days a week, focusing on communications and media strategy. “I take about an hour every day to have dinner, which is the closest thing I’m doing to having fun,” said Steel, who also took a leave during the 2012 presidential campaign to serve as press secretary to vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul D. Ryan.
Congressional aides can serve as volunteers or get paid by the campaigns. But to do so, they must use vacation days, take unpaid leave or, when possible, spend their nights and weekends helping, said Jan Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein who specializes in campaign and election law.
“If somebody’s going to be doing campaign work, they’ve got to do it on off hours, not using congressional resources,” Baran said. “It’s not tricky. The only thing that has to be observed is that tax payer money is not used to subsidize the employee’s campaign work.”
Once they’ve jumped through the proper hoops and have gotten clearance from their boss, Hill aides can quickly morph into campaign staffers.
Wadi Gaitan got a job offer over the summer to be the communications director for the campaign of Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican looking to unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia.
The gig is a good fit. Gaitan works as the House Republican Conference’s point person on Spanish-language press and the Hispanic media market, and Curbelo hails from a majority-Latino district in Miami. And Gaitan's boss, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, has focused her first term as Conference chairwoman on expanding the tent of the Republican Party and growing diversity within the party ranks .
Gaitan also has a place to stay, since he has family in the area, including an uncle and two cousins who live in Curbelo’s district.
“I think everyone saw it as a great opportunity,” Gaitan told CQ Roll Call. “I made the case that I thought this would be a great race for me, specifically, to be able to help out in, and that’s what my bosses saw as well.”
His supervisors agreed to let Gaitan take a leave of absence to work on the campaign from August through Election Day. They recognize that if Curbelo wins, they win: The GOP would have another seat in Congress, and a new Latino lawmaker in their ranks.
Most congressional offices aren’t hesitant to let staff take unpaid leave or vacation time if it’s for the good of the party, especially the month before an election when Congress is on recess and Capitol Hill is quiet until the lame-duck session.
The number of vacation days an aide can take depends on the member for whom he or she works, as every congressional office handles personnel issues differently, with little uniformity across the board.
But offices do run some risk in letting aides take off for campaign season: They may not come back. Candidates who win elections — particularly first-time members — often look to their campaigns to staff their congressional offices , particularly aides with Capitol Hill experience. Ambitious aides might jump at the chance for a new challenge, or perhaps a promotion.
Some of the Hill staffers who have left Washington to work on campaigns declined to comment, saying the effort was not about them personally, but Gaitan took a different approach: “I’m not trying to speak for anyone else or criticize anyone, but I think when you take a job, you believe in your boss, and when you’re asked, ‘Okay, why did you join this team?,’ you should answer.”
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