Making Coffee, Copies Pays Off, Hill Vets Say
Nearly two decades ago, Jim Manley toiled in a viewless corner of S-318 in the Capitol as a press assistant to then-Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).
Today, the 45-year-old senior communications adviser to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is still working in that same office. But both his portfolio (he’s in charge of shaping message for Reid and Senate Democrats) and his scenery are a whole lot better: His desk now boasts a direct line on the Washington Monument.
So what’s his advice to the hordes of young 20-something staff assistants and legislative correspondents looking to succeed in that first job and move up the Capitol Hill ladder?
Be prepared to put in long hours. “I was the early morning guy doing the clips,” Manley said. “I stuck around at night because I was fascinated by the Senate and how it worked.”
Manley was one of several current and former senior Hill aides Roll Call consulted in an effort to get the inside track on how to build a long-term career in the corridors of power — one that will endure after you’ve outgrown 10-cent wing nights at Capitol Lounge or softball games on the National Mall.
Here are some of their suggestions.
• Soviet-style, five-year plans should be avoided. Eric Ueland left college with intentions of pursuing graduate work in American diplomatic history and possibly becoming a professor, but an internship at the American Spectator led to an offer to join the Senate Republican Policy Committee and put him on a path that eventually catapulted him into one of the most powerful positions on Capitol Hill: chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
“I didn’t have a plan,” Ueland said. “My objective was just to do the best I could with the assignments I had and try to be helpful where I could be helpful.”
He added: “People are too busy looking for the next vine to swing from rather than focusing on the one they are holding onto right now.”
• No matter how elite your alma mater or how many academic accolades you have under your belt, you are not too good to answer the phone, deliver mail or run errands. “I still make coffee for our policy staff,” said Neil Bradley, policy director to House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). “The attitude you bring” to tasks like filling the copier and stuffing envelopes “is going to rebound.”
As a rule, “you do absolutely everything you are asked to do,” said House Rules Committee Democratic Staff Director Dan Turton, who remembers washing plenty of dishes in his first Hill job as a staff assistant to then-House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) in the early 1990s.
• Personality, personality, personality. Turton compares Capitol Hill to “working for a company” — everyone talks. That said, if you want to advance, “you have to have a good personality. … People like working with people who are easy to work with,” he noted. Period.
• Develop an issue portfolio. Not long after being promoted to legislative assistant to then-Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) while still a senior in college, Bradley said he decided to “immerse myself in budget stuff and the rules of the House as they pertained to the budget. … I took a lot of stuff home to read at nights and on the weekends. I distinctly remember reading through entire bills and not knowing what some of the provisions meant but marking the ones I didn’t understand so I could sit down when I got back in the office and try to figure them out.”
The effort, he said, paid off.
“At some point you can be the guy answering the questions rather than the guy asking the questions,” he said.
• Where possible, look for the best mentors irrespective of party. When Turton began his tenure as a Democratic floor assistant, he turned to three veteran floor staffers — Democrat Marti Thomas and Republicans Jay Pierson and Martha Morrison — for mentoring.
“They were the best teachers to me,” Turton said, adding that they were more than willing to guide him through the ins and outs of handling himself on the floor — from personal conduct to approaching and dealing with Members.
• Avoid job-hopping. With few exceptions, plan on staying in your first Hill office a minimum of a year, these aides said.
“In the first four to six months on Capitol Hill, the staff in the office is spending more of their time putting time into you as a new staffer than you are really putting into them or producing,” asserted Fred Turner, press secretary and chief of staff to Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.). “They expect you to spend the next six to eight to 12 months repaying them with what you’ve learned.”
As Rob Zucker, a former legislative director for Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) who spent nearly a decade on the Hill before joining Winning Strategies as a lobbyist, noted: “You never know when you are going to want to get back involved” with a given Member, so while most understand if you quit for a clearly better opportunity, it’s best not to create any ill will by wasting their time or leaving them in the lurch after just a few months.
• View Hill shake-ups as an opportunity. The prospect of unemployment is one of the most unsettling and common experiences of life on Capitol Hill — your Member loses a tough re-election battle, your party loses its grip on the majority. But there also can be upsides to the uncertainty, several aides said.
Ironically, the 1994 Republican revolution “benefited me the most,” Turton asserted. A switch in party control “causes major shake-ups” on committee and leadership staff. “Senior people get cut,” he said, which meant that he had an opening to move up on Gephardt’s floor staff.
Looming electoral shake-ups also provide an impetus to network and work hard — two skills that will serve you well in any job, aides said. “I think other Members tend to realize when staff does good work for their previous boss, and they usually pick up seasoned veterans or battle-hardened folks,” Zucker said.
Still, Zucker conceded that the pressures of the election cycle, particularly in the House, require “greater perseverance. … If there are shake-ups every two years, you are forced to ask yourself: ‘Do you want to stay?’”
• A stint off the Hill can broaden your perspective. A mid-career move downtown can be beneficial to your long-term success on the Hill, as long as the work advances or expands your expertise in a given area, several current and former aides said.
Turton, a former lobbyist for Timmons and Co. who recently returned to the Hill to serve as majority staff director on the Rules Committee, said K Street experience “gives you a much more well-rounded view of how politics really work and how the real world views politics. … I’d grown up working under the Dome before this. I’d been spoon-fed the Democratic viewpoint and anxiously ate it up and all that is very healthy and as it should be.”
But time away from the Hill broadened his perspective. “I’m much more mature in my approach to how things really work,” he said.
• Advanced degrees matter — sometimes. “Since the 1970s, the Capitol Hill work force has expanded dramatically,” Ueland said. “Those with specific knowledge,” i.e., a master’s or law degree, “can be extremely worthwhile in informing debate or understanding federal-state issues.”
Still, if you aren’t aiming to become a policy whiz on, say, health care or campaign finance legislation or a counsel to a committee, several Hill veterans said a bachelor’s likely is sufficient.
• Avoid sure-fire career killers. Most career-busting moves on Capitol Hill are pretty obvious. Don’t speak ill of your office mates or Member, don’t break rules knowingly, don’t send inappropriate e-mails, and don’t go to Web sites that you “shouldn’t be at the office,” Turner said.
More specifically, aides said, be discreet when it comes to the airing of internal office matters.
“There’s a lot of people that like to show off that they know certain things,” Bradley said, adding that once you develop a reputation for “talking out of school” that can “be pretty tough to overcome.”
“You learn things, you see things, you hear things that ought not to be repeated outside that office,” Turner noted. “It shows good professional judgment when you can share things with junior level staff with the understanding that they won’t repeat it to their friends, their roommates, the person who works in the other office.”