Campaign Experience Can Jump-Start Hill Careers

Posted January 18, 2008 at 6:06pm

For some lawmakers and staffers, campaign season brings a whiff of uncertainty when it comes to job security. Still, for young job seekers looking to catch a break, working on the campaign trail can be the experience they need to land a position on Capitol Hill.

Pete Judge canvassed the halls of Congress after college looking for an entry-level job in a Member’s office, but despite his political science degree and two internships on Capitol Hill, the aspiring staff assistant could not find permanent work. Judge moved out in order to move up, leaving Washington for Iowa, where he gained experience as a field organizer on Sen. Chris Dodd’s (D-Conn.) presidential campaign. Judge considers his time canvassing rural Iowa as an investment.

“Campaigning accelerates time a little in terms of experience and making contacts,” he said. “I figure working several months in Iowa bumps me up the ladder a few notches.”

Like other young professionals with their eyes set on Capitol Hill, Judge plans to leverage his experience on the Dodd campaign when he starts applying for jobs in Washington again. In the meantime, he was able to use the contacts he made in the Hawkeye State to secure another campaign job quickly after Dodd dropped out of the presidential race. The Chicago native is now a field organizer for Bill Foster, a Democratic candidate in the special election to replace former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

As someone who considers the résumés of entry-level applicants, Chris Miller, legislative director for Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), said showing upward movement and political skills are key.

“The Hill and campaigns are very similar environments, with the fast pace and high pressure,” Miller explained. “If you know someone was good on a campaign, they will probably flourish in a Congressional office.”

John Billings, a former Hill staffer who has faced the uncertainty of working on a campaign, said betting your future on a campaign can help in the long run.

“It’s a risky way, but it’s a good way [to advance your career],” he said. “After a campaign, you’re a proven entity.”

Billings spent five years in the office of former Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.). After working on Bass’ losing re-election campaign in 2006, he had to maximize his experience to stay afloat. Doubly challenging was competing against the dozens of other Republican staffers, especially from the Northeast, who lost their jobs on Election Day.

“For staffers, it’s difficult to accept the fact that you had a job on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, you didn’t,” Billings said. “You have to get over that shock and set up your own campaign to get a job.”

The former Congressman agrees. “After I lost on Election Day, and essentially more than 50 percent of the voters rejected me, a big worry was whether I could ever find a job,” Bass said.

Bass applied the same job-searching skills after the 2006 election as his young staffers, using his contacts and touting his Hill experience. The former Congressman is now president of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group that pushes for moderate policy, and tapped Billings to serve as its executive director.

“The most interesting thing about losing was that I quickly found out who I had developed the best relationships with,” Billings said, noting that those people were the ones reaching out on his behalf.

Miller also has been on the losing side of a campaign, finding himself out of work in 2002 after former Sen. Tim Hutchison (R-Ark.) lost his bid for re-election. Miller said a former boss can be the saving grace in finding that next job.

“I’ve never heard of a Member not doing everything they could to take care of their staffs after losing,” he said. Additionally, Miller said offices tend to look for out-of-work Congressional staff once the dust has settled after election season. “We have to look out for each other.”