Staffers Search for Life After Loss

Posted November 5, 2004 at 5:30pm

Elections are always tough for members of the losing party — and doubly so if your job depends on your party’s success at the ballot box.

But for aides to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and other Democratic staffers contemplating the seemingly dismal post-Nov. 2 employment landscape, the message from veterans of last cycle’s defeats is simple: Life goes on.

“The good news is you do get over it,” said Bob Decheine, chief of staff to then-Rep. Bill Luther (D-Minn.), who lost to Republican John Kline in 2002. “The bad news is, it’s really ugly.”

Indeed, several former aides to defeated incumbents compared the experience to a grieving process.

“The day after, you are just so numb and so devastated, and there’s nothing like it,” said Patricia Murphy, who served as communications director to then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.). “You think the count of the vote is wrong. You are in total denial. Then you are so sad about it. … Then you might be a little angry. … And then you finally hope you can kind of accept it.”

“It’s very tough to see people coming and picking out fabric patterns for draperies when you are still in mourning,” added Decheine, who landed as chief of staff to Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.).

Some ex-staffers to vanquished Members said a good way to move forward, at least if you are a senior staffer, is to focus on helping younger and lower-level aides find gainful employment.

When Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) lost, she and her staff only had about two weeks to move out of their Hart Senate Office Building digs, because her defeat came in a special election. Her then-chief of staff, Roy Temple, set up a de facto office on the second floor of a Starbucks on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast.

“Our running joke was that people could come by my office for career counseling,” Temple said. “One of the ways you manage your own sadness about something is by helping others. … One, it’s the right thing to do; two, Daschle will want them to do it; and, three, it makes you feel better.”

On a personal level, several current and former aides said, the defeats can be a “blessing in disguise,” allowing the chance to “take stock” and re-evaluate career options and future goals.

For some, that could mean bidding farewell to the rat race — at least the one in the nation’s capital.

Eileen Force, Cleland’s former press secretary, said her boss’s loss prompted her to move to Milwaukee to be closer to her boyfriend, now her fiancé. She took a job with an advertising agency and limited her political involvement to volunteering for state Senate races, Planned Parenthood and Democratic Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) presidential bid.

“You can get involved in other ways,” she said. “Instead of being on the payroll you can be on the volunteer list.”

After Carnahan’s 1-point loss to Republican Jim Talent two years ago, then-Carnahan Deputy Chief of Staff Rachel Storch decided to head back to Missouri, where she went to work for the Democratic leader in the state Senate. Her performance there was so impressive to women’s groups that they asked her to run for an open state House seat — which she handily won last week.

“Working in the Senate gives you so much wealth of experience,” she said. “It’s important to take that experience back” to your home state.

Although frustrating, the forced break can actually be good for your mental health, others added.

Several one-time aides to ousted Members said they found a period of traveling or sleeping late and indulging in daytime movies at Union Station to be beneficial before returning to the job hunt.

“I was burned out. I went to Europe … and [then] took a tour of a whole bunch of Civil War sites I’d never seen before,” said Decheine. Thankfully, Decheine said, his wife was working and able to provide financial security. Because of that, he said, “it was actually a fairly enjoyable time.”

“You need to get out of the office, play sports, spend time with the family. Not read the news, not watch CNN. Don’t do any of that for a while,” advised House Homeland Security Committee Minority Staff Director David Schanzer, a former legislative director to Carnahan.

Even in the best of circumstances, however, the uncertainty that comes with a loss can still be disheartening, especially in one of Washington’s drearier seasons.

“The fact that you are unemployed in January is very unfortunate,” said Murphy, who eventually enlisted Cleland to help her land a post as communications director for the CEO of the Public Broadcasting Service. “I would recommend a trip to the Caribbean or something.”

Despite the tighter job market heading into next year, those Democrats who are determined to return to the Hill in the 109th Congress do have some reasons to be optimistic, Decheine said.

“There’s going to be openings in the House and Senate side. We all go through a retooling at the end of the election year before the start of a new Congress,” he said, estimating that even with the shrinking numbers of Democratic seats, “300 to 350” policy jobs could potentially turn over each year.

The spate of soon-to-be alumni of Daschle’s office have even more reason not to despair, veteran Democrats said.

For one thing, “everybody they’ve ever met knows they need a job,” said Murphy. For another, the Daschle operation’s reputation both on and off the Hill in Washington is “sterling,” Decheine said. “They are very employable, even in this limited” environment.

Temple, who served most recently as Kerry’s Minnesota state director, said that the scores of recently unemployed Kerry campaign staffers like himself may contribute to more “challenging circumstances” for Democratic job seekers. Still, he added, “there are always places for [Democrats] to land.”

Washington, after all, is hardly lacking in think tanks, nonprofits and other left-of-center organizations.

When it comes to Democrats’ prospects downtown, insiders say the jury is still out on how dramatically the losses will affect opportunities on K Street.

“It’s a Republican town in many ways,” said Todd Deatherage, chief of staff to then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.). “Things have to be done on both sides of the aisle, obviously, but it does create fewer options for someone who works for the Minority Leader’s office.”

Still, nearly all Democrats interviewed were cautiously optimistic that because Republicans in the Senate are still short of a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority, their party would retain some relevance downtown.

“Firms will keep a few slots for Democrats,” Murphy predicted.

Contrary to the old saw about there being no second acts in American politics, there’s always some kind of tomorrow for Democratic staffers, no matter how bleak the current outlook.

“The next campaign cycle for 2006 started on Nov. 3,” Force said. “Better luck next time.”