Hill Climbers: A Worldwide Journey

Posted March 24, 2009 at 3:07pm

It was May 2002, and Mary Sprayregen was at a bit of a loss. A recent sociology graduate from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she was frustrated to find out that “a lot of the jobs I wanted, I wasn’t qualified for.—

[IMGCAP(1)]What’s an eager grad to do? Sprayregen decided to make good on her vow to work in Europe, a plan inspired by a study-abroad trip to Switzerland. She landed a job teaching English in Italy and spent a year living out her dream.

“I had romanticized working there,— she said. “It’s a lot like working anywhere else.—

Although Sprayregen said the experience gave her the confidence to take on unfamiliar challenges, it also taught her that she did not want to be a teacher. And that she didn’t want to live with the stigma of being a foreigner.

“I was always going to be an outsider,— she said of working in Italy. “As an American living abroad, you’re never really going to be part of a community.—

So back to her hometown of Burlington, Vt., she went, once again at a loss for what her career path would be. She did some networking and was soon offered a job as a lobbyist working on government affairs and business issues for the local chamber of commerce. It was while she was a lobbyist that she met then-state Sen. Peter Welch (D).

“He was a Senator, and I was a lobbyist,— she said. “We weren’t always on the same page, but I had a lot of respect for him.—

When Welch won a seat in the House, he decided to recruit Sprayregen to the other side, as his business liaison in Vermont. She held that job from 2007 until this February, when she became a legislative assistant in his Washington, D.C., office.

Sprayregen is still focusing on business issues, in addition to science, appropriations, regulated energy and telecommunications.

Sitting on a couch and sipping tea in Welch’s office, she contemplated the route she’s taken to get here, a long way from Italy and an even longer one from the days of studying sociology and criminal justice.

“My interest and my career path has changed,— she said with a laugh. But in retrospect, a business-related career wasn’t so far-fetched.

Sprayregen comes from what she describes as “a family of entrepreneurs.— Her father and brother own a commercial real estate company, Investors Corp. of Vermont, in Burlington. While she may not go into business for herself someday, Sprayregen does hope to work in the private sector at some point.

“I do have a lot of respect for people who start their own business,— she said. “I just don’t know if I’m one of them. I’d like to help them.—

[IMGCAP(2)]Stephanie Krenrich’s journey to Capitol Hill began in a similar way to Sprayregen’s. Krenrich was raised in New Jersey and lived in Massachusetts, and she is happily settled into a job as Welch’s senior legislative assistant now, but a few years ago, it was a different story. She graduated from New York University in 2001 with her political science degree in hand — and no idea what to do with it. In search of some direction, she became an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer at the Montana Legal Services Foundation. She helped educate people there about their rights and civic responsibilities before leaving Helena to work for the Democratic Party.

Krenrich landed in rural Fulton, Ill., as part of the Democratic-coordinated campaign efforts there. Initially, she said, she suffered from culture shock after having lived in New York City and then ending up in the small Midwestern town.

She got over that quickly, however. Krenrich got a crash course in constituents’ concerns, from jobs that had been lost with the closing of a local Maytag plant to education and gun control issues. It was in Fulton that she really caught “the political bug,— working on get-out-the-vote efforts and organizing volunteers.

“It was not a good year for Democrats overall, but Illinois did very well,— Krenrich said with some pride.

After the 2002 elections, Krenrich returned to Massachusetts. But she did pick up one special memento from her time in the Prairie State: a T-shirt supporting disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who was elected to gubernatorial office that year.

“It’s kind of ironic at this point,— she said of the shirt.

Krenrich was waiting tables and substitute teaching in Massachusetts when she got an offer to work as a legislative assistant for former Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.). She later held the same job for Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) before joining Welch’s team at the beginning of March. In her new role, she advises Welch on health care, education and housing, among other issues.

Krenrich swears her most memorable moments on the Hill are work-related.

“I do get disproportionately excited when bills go to the floor,— she said. But she also admits to being just a little star-struck when she went to a briefing where the Indigo Girls performed.

“I’m not, like, die-hard, but I love them and I know their music,— she said.

Even a bill going to the floor would have had to pale in comparison that day.

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