Hill Climbers: Leaving the Party

Posted October 22, 2008 at 2:56pm

Brad Howard switched party allegiances several years ago, but he still draws inspiration from one GOP luminary when describing his political jump.

[IMGCAP(1)]“Ronald Reagan said, ‘I didn’t leave the Democratic party. The Democratic party left me.’ That’s kind of the way I felt about the Republican party,” Howard said.

Howard was a Republican until 2005, although the 2004 election was the moment that really set the change in motion, he said.

“The 2004 election just put a bitter taste in my mouth,” he said. “The Republican Party went off the deep end.”

Howard, 24, had been chairman of the College Republicans at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., for two years when he realized he could not align himself with the party anymore. After graduating from Hendrix in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in politics and an economics minor, Howard moved to Washington, D.C., for graduate school and began his career in Democratic politics.

While working on his master’s degree in public communication at American University, Howard interned with the New Democrat Network in the summer of 2007.

[IMGCAP(2)]This July, he started as communications director for Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a post that gives him a chance to

stay connected to family and friends back home in Arkansas and that means he is working for a Member whose values he shares.

“I really like that [Ross] is a Blue Dog Democrat,” he said. “They’re kind of the fiscal police of the House.”

Howard said that as a political junkie, he’s always been drawn to Washington, but there are things that he misses about home.

“Of course I miss my family’s food, my mom and my grandmother’s cooking,” he said. He also noted the connectedness of people in his hometown of Van Buren, Ark., which he says often seems lacking in D.C.

Of his hometown, he said: “Everyone has a part of it. D.C. is more transient. I miss where everyone takes ownership of where they live.”

A second new appointment in Ross’ office is Zach Baumgarten, the director of constituent services.

Baumgarten learned an early lesson about the world of Capitol Hill when he was an intern for Ross in the summer of 2007. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had passed Baumgarten and another intern after a vote, and he couldn’t help expressing his admiration.

“I turned to the other intern and was like, ‘Wow, she looks really great in person,’” he recalled. “I guess we were louder than we thought” because Pelosi caught the comment as she walked by. Though she didn’t say anything to the two interns, Baumgarten said she “turned around and smiled” before moving on.

The lure of working for his hometown Representative is one reason the Monticello, Ark. native chose to work for Ross. Baumgarten is particularly passionate about issues affecting the Mississippi delta region, which he said suffers from economic difficulties and a troubled educational system. He said he felt working for Ross would allow him to “go back and help, hopefully, the people of our district.”

Baumgarten, 22, graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello in May with a degree in political science. He went into college wanting to be a doctor, but he said he soon realized he wanted to serve the public in another way.

“I thought I could help more people if I go into government,” he said.

Baumgarten is replacing Ashlee Johnson, who was promoted in August to legislative correspondent. In addition, Lee Stewart was hired over the summer as legislative assistant for agriculture, defense, veterans’ affairs and homeland security, and Valerie Hendrix joined the office in August as Ross’ scheduler and executive assistant.

Send news of hires and promotions on Capitol Hill to climbers@rollcall.com.