It’s All in the Family

Posted March 25, 2009 at 2:21pm

Chief of Staff Jennifer Van der Heide likes to think of herself more as a mother hen than a demanding boss. In her role as No. 2 in the D.C. office of Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), she is responsible for managing a staff of 14, but she prefers to look at her colleagues as family, rather than employees.

“They just threw the third annual birthday party for my five-year-old,— she said with a smile. “We’re very close, and we share, I think, a lot of personal events with each other.—

For the past eight years, Van der Heide, 43, has juggled keeping the tight-knit Longworth office in order while keeping a finger on the pulse of Silicon Valley. This all feeds into her true passion — working with staff and helping them succeed professionally. Honda’s office employs a diverse group — something Van der Heide loves — and at one time, staffers spoke 18 languages. The chief of staff said she tries to help them move up the career ladder.

“I love the opportunity for them to grow and to be successful,— she said. “It is a source of pride to facilitate a healthy and challenging work environment, enabling the bright staff to move on important issues.—

For Van der Heide, some of the most rewarding parts of her job are watching those whom she manages excel at things that are important to the Congressman.

One of her strong suits has always been her ability to hire well and choose the right person for the job, she said. Not only is it important that staffers in Honda’s office be smart and competent, but it is also important that they get along, Van der Heide said.

“It’s been really conflict-free for years, and I think that is why the staff is here,— she said.

[IMGCAP(1)]While staffing is her passion, it is not Van der Heide’s sole responsibility. A typical day in the life of Honda’s chief of staff is an ever-changing parade of issues. Van der Heide may be overseeing work on amendments to the stimulus bill one day and meeting with an immigrant family in an attempt to better understand their needs on another.

“I think the greatest challenge in this office is that we have so many balls moving at any one time,— she said. Never one to dwell on the negative, she added, “It also tends to be where my strength lies, in kind of multitasking.—

Luckily, Van der Heide and Honda are often in sync in their thinking and approach to things. The two arrived in Congress together, when he was first elected in 2000. Van der Heide had managed Honda’s campaign in California and soon assumed the role of his chief of staff. Experiencing their new jobs for the first time together was a major bonding point, she said.

“I think we’ve kind of grown together through this job, and he is an absolute inspiration,— she said. “I’m really blessed to work for him. It’s why I’m here. I never anticipated doing this job otherwise.—

Prior to moving to Washington, D.C., Van der Heide worked as a tribal attorney representing indigent Native Americans and then as in-house counsel for the Hoopa Valley Tribe in California. The issue of small and sometimes-overlooked communities is still close to her heart. When the opportunity arises, she tries to work on legislation that will help these people.

“A lot of the work we do is about working with underrepresented communities,— she said. “I’ve kind of lived my life as a pretty passionate supporter for social justice, so I tend to get involved in civil rights issues.—

But no matter how much Van der Heide loves her job, the single mother still gets frustrated and on occasion feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day.

“The worst part is not having enough time to take advantage of the incredible opportunities I have on the Hill,— she said, referencing briefings and international trips. It’s also a challenge juggle the different issues and needs of constituents, she said.

“I think the challenge is to keep being proactive on the areas that you’ve identified as priorities at the same time that the unexpected is coming in,— she said.

At the end of the day, all the stress is worth it, so long as Honda is moving up the ranks in Congress. For instance, Honda had long sought a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, a goal he finally achieved in 2007. Van der Heide is proud to have been a part of “steering the course— and mapping out a plan for this accomplishment.

“It’s what keeps me gratified everyday in the job,— she said.