Member Losses Wreak Havoc on Staff

Posted November 26, 2008 at 3:21pm

When Rekha Chandrasekaran took a job with Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) earlier this year, she knew that her new boss was running for the Senate against a popular incumbent. But Chandrasekaran took the gamble and was confident that she would be moving to the upper chamber with Allen after Election Day.

The voters in Maine, who elected Sen. Susan Collins (R) to a third term, had other plans in mind.

“Obviously, you know it’s a possibility, but I thought [Allen] had a really good shot,” Chandrasekaran said.

The California native works for one of nearly two dozen Members who lost their jobs this year; she has since launched a campaign to find another position.

For Democrats, who picked up more than 20 seats in the House and at least seven in the Senate, in addition to the White House, mulling the potential job opportunities might seem like drinking from a fire hose.

But the dynamic of the Capitol Hill job market is always in flux. And the number of openings could grow, at least on the Democratic side of Congress, after President-elect Barack Obama finishes staffing his administration.

“Everything has to shuffle out at the top,” said Brittany Eck, a public affairs director at the Department of Commerce. “You have to work like you’re hustling, but let things shuffle and work themselves out.”

Eck joined the Bush administration as a political appointee two years ago after her boss, then-Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) lost re-election. The Dallas-native had less than two weeks to pack up and move out of her office, and she flew back to Texas for Christmas without another job lined up.

“You’re upset at losing your own job and about your boss losing,” Eck said of the emotional roller coaster that followed the bruising re-election battle.

Republican staffers can turn to the GOP Conference job bank to look for opportunities, although the service does not take résumés.

The Senate Placement Office serves as a buffer between applicants and employers, and the folks in the Hart Senate Office Building have been swamped since Election Day.

Democrats are excited about their increased margins and are not eager to leave the Hill.

For Republicans who lost seats in both chambers, the supply of experienced staffers is high and the demand is low.

“You’d think with all this talk of bipartisanship and change, there would be a demand for a moderate Republican Member,” a Senate Republican aide pointed out. “But it doesn’t seem to be that way.”

The aide, whose boss lost last month, specializes in health care and was looking forward to working on health insurance legislation in the upcoming session. Instead, she and her co-workers are brushing up their résumés.

“We’re doing this because we have to, not because we want to,” she said. “Many of us would’ve stayed past the election, and we still hope that we can.”

While some staffers are thrown into a job search after Election Day, others had an advanced warning.

Andrew Holland, a legislative assistant for outgoing Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), has been sending out his résumé and making contacts since Hagel announced his retirement in September 2007.

But even with the head start, Holland found that potential employers were cautious to make new hires before an election.

“It seems like no matter how far ahead I wanted to get out there, no one in Washington wanted to make any decisions without knowing the election outcome,” said Holland, who is originally from New Jersey.

Some incoming Members, inundated with résumés, operate the same way.

“I have interviewed several people, but I’m going to [think] about it,” Rep.-elect Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said. “I know it creates high anxiety among those looking for a job, but I see myself as letting the staff trickle in.”

Holland is looking on and off the Hill, and was one of 600 to apply for an opening at a think tank. No one in his family works in politics, and his job search will likely turn into dinner conversation over Thanksgiving.

“My father worked for the same company for 30 years,” he said. “The whole idea of changing your job every two or three years is surprising to him.”