Hill Climbers: Pascrell’s Posse

Posted July 25, 2008 at 5:57pm

Jasmine Vasquez has had a packed summer, and she doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.

[IMGCAP(1)]After earning a law degree from DePaul University in May, she left Chicago to become economic policy adviser for Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). Now she’s in the homestretch of studying for the bar exam while planning a cross-country road trip in early August. The vacation will be a welcome break.

“It’s been a sad seven months,” Vasquez joked, but added that she has been luckier than some of her classmates, who have not found their officemates to be as understanding about balancing work and study as her co-workers have been.

Vasquez, 26, is originally from the Hunts Point neighborhood of the Bronx and is the oldest of 11 children. Her job as Capitol Hill staffer is more awe-inspiring to some of those siblings than others.

“My youngest brother is 9, so he’s more impressed than some of my older siblings,” she said.

Vasquez, who tailored her law studies to focus on economic issues, interned for the Ways and Means Committee during summer 2007. The experience helped her realize she wanted to start her career on the Hill, and with Pascrell.

“He has tremendous integrity and has a great relationship with his constituents,” she said. “He is also very motivated, and his enthusiasm is contagious. I always wanted to work for someone like him.”

Pascrell has also made some personnel moves in his policy shop, where Assad Akhter was recently promoted from legislative assistant to legislative director.

Akhter, whose father is a programs officer at the United Nations, lived in Ethiopia when he was younger and said the combination of his father’s job and both of his parents being from Pakistan influenced his interest in international relations.

Although his original plan when he arrived in Washington was to become a lawyer, a year of working for Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and taking classes at Catholic University showed him that becoming an attorney was not for him.

“I envied people who got to stay at work late,” Akhter said. After finishing his first year of law school, he decided to leave and commit himself to working on the Hill instead.

Before becoming an LA to Pascrell in 2006, Akhter worked as a legislative fellow in then-Rep. David Bonior’s (D-Mich.) office during summer 2002 and as an LA to Jackson Lee from 2003 to 2005.

Akhter is president of the Congressional Muslim Staffers Association. He said it’s funny to him when people are particularly interested in the group, saying that if he was president of a Catholic staff association, for example, no one would think it was out of the ordinary. But he welcomes the attention.

“The fact that we get a lot of attention is a good thing because we get more of a chance to educate people about it,” he said.

The New Jersey native graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., in 2003.

Mandy Spears, Pascrell’s new legislative assistant advising him on health care, became passionate about such issues when she was still living in her native Tennessee. After seeing people with severe disabilities camp outside the state Capitol to protest health care cuts, Spears was moved to become involved in policymaking.

Spears, 25, graduated from Georgetown University in 2007 with a master’s in health policy. She previously worked as a health legislative assistant for Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.) and as a presidential management fellow in the Budget Office at the Department of Health and Human Services for the past year, an experience that ultimately led her back to the Hill.

“Shortly after beginning my fellowship at HHS, I learned that the executive branch is not the branch of government for me,” she said. “I missed the Hill.”

Although she’s only been in the office since July 14, Spears’ knack for design has already made an impression on her colleagues. She designed shirts for everyone to wear to support Pascrell at the 47th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game earlier this month.

Akhter praised the shirts, saying she had been at the office a short time but was already setting a precedent for the game.

“They’ll be even better next year,” Spears promised.

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