Hill Climbers: Starting With Empty Rooms

Posted March 31, 2009 at 5:30pm

The first thing one might notice about Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello’s (D) staff is that there isn’t a shrinking violet in the bunch. Gathered together around a table in their Longworth office, the group cracks jokes, discusses their tastes in music and passes around popcorn and chocolate as they share why they came to work for their boss.

[IMGCAP(1)]Despite having disparate professional backgrounds, the group seems to have bonded pretty quickly since moving into the office in January. Chief of Staff Lise Clavel remembers the day well.

“We started here in the office on day one and the phones were ringing and you didn’t know where the pens and Post-it notes are,— she recalled.

“Or how to turn the computers on,— chimed in Legislative Director Beth Elliott. The staffers laughed as they remembered the chaos of the first day. But for Clavel, the empty rooms were symbolic of the transition she made from the campaign trail to a Congressional office.

Clavel, who graduated from Yale in 2002, met fellow Bulldog Perriello while he was doing nonprofit work, and she was attracted to his commitment to service.

“I think he still wakes up every day thinking about how he can help people improve their lives,— she said.

Clavel joined Perriello’s campaign as finance director and eventually took over as campaign director as well. It wasn’t a job she had done before, but she learned as she went and the work paid off when Perriello was elected. Stepping into an empty Congressional office and leading as chief of staff were also new to Clavel. But having already handled the rigors of campaign management, she was up to the challenge.

Elliott was also attracted to Perriello’s sincerity, but there was another reason she wanted to work for him. He is her hometown Representative, and having a Democrat hold the seat is a welcome change for the Lynchburg-area native.

[IMGCAP(2)]“Living in Arlington is nice because I came from a very conservative area,— she said, describing the difference between the city and her hometown. “They’re a little more liberal than I am, but I don’t get heckled at the polls.—

Elliott earned her master’s degree in political management from George Washington University in 2008 and a bachelor’s in government and international politics from George Mason University in 2003. She spent nearly a year as a legislative assistant for then-Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), and four years as a legislative assistant and legislative correspondent for Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.).

The plan was to spend only a year and a half on the Hill, but nearly five years later, Elliott is still here. Whether she will make a career as a Congressional staffer is still to be seen, but she said she is fairly certain she will stay in Washington.

Scheduler Nicholas Jordan was the furthest thing from small-town Virginia when he decided to work for Perriello. He had been an investment banker at Citigroup in Manhattan, and he realized that the world of high finance wasn’t for him.

After surviving two consecutive all-nighters, sleeping under his desk and showering in the gym, Jordan had had enough. The final decision came on the third day, when he nearly missed his train home to Boston for Christmas. “I was just, like, This is just absurd,’— he said.

Friends and mentors from Jordan’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, suggested looking into other professional opportunities when he told them he was unhappy at Citigroup. He had been following Perriello’s race against incumbent Republican Rep. Virgil Goode and submitted his application.

Getting the post “kind of threw off my whole life plan,— he said. “This world of politics is really interesting just because there’s so many issues.—

One benefit to working in Perriello’s office is the high-quality music selection he enjoys every day, courtesy of Communications Director and former DJ Jessica Barba.

Barba and Jordan sit next to each other, and though she says she tries to coordinate Pandora stations with her seatmate, he admits ceding the decisions to her. Virginia native Barba is especially proud of her stations that are seeded by Jazmine Sullivan, Lady Sovereign and Sizzla Kalonji, but she said that’s where the music mixing ends these days. Her old records have been stashed away since she was a student at New York University. But there is always the possibility she will break out her scratching skills again.

In the meantime, Barba is running the press shop for her boss and friend Perriello.

They met through mutual church friends about four years ago. When Barba found out he was entering the race, she was eager to help him. “When he said he was running for office, I said, What can I do?’ And he said, You can work for me,’— she recalled. “It ended up being quite an experience.—

Not only was Perriello a good friend, his candidacy represented for Barba a connection between her faith and ideals.

“I had grown up as a social-justice Catholic,— she said. “All my Catholic friends were Republican, and all my Democrat friends were godless. He married the two things that were so important to me.—

Barba had never worked in politics before; her background was in public relations for nonprofits such as City Year and CancerCare. So when it came to the gritty task of doing campaign media, she was a little hesitant at first.

“When I was at the cancer organization, we weren’t blasting the other cancer organizations, so I was a little nervous about going negative,— she said. “But then I got into it.—

One campaigner-turned-Congressional-staffer who did not have a problem with the harsh aspects of the race was Logan Ferree. He became a legislative assistant for Perriello after the Congressman’s win, but there are days when he misses being on the trail.

Ferree majored in government and minored in anthropology at the College of William & Mary. After graduating in 2007, he headed to Mississippi to do opposition research for the Democratic Party during the Republican primaries. He did that until early 2008, once Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) became the GOP nominee.

The work had been enjoyable, Ferree said, but after having an experience similar to Jordan’s all-nighters, he was ready for a change. “At one point I had worked 37 hours straight. That’s when I knew I had to move on to something else,— he said.

Being a “voracious reader,— as he put it, Ferree likely doesn’t mind doing policy research and following various issues. On his downtime, though, his reading material is a little more … eclectic.

Ferree is perhaps one of the few men who will admit to having read the vampire series “Twilight.— He says he’ll read just about anything, although he’s also seen the movie and said he has “Twilight— conversation heart candies at his desk. It’s a surprising admission from a 24-year-old guy, but he swears it’s because he loves candy, not because of his dedication to the film.

Mary Humphreys has also done her time on the campaign trail, but unlike Ferree, she is none too eager to head back in that direction. She was working as a staff assistant to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) when she left his office to work for the Democrats’ coordinated campaign in Virginia.

Humphreys recalls being very excited when she saw that Perriello had a chance at success in Virginia’s 5th district, especially because her initial impression of him had been that he might be too good of a guy to run for office.

“I remember thinking, He is just so sweet. He’s just a nice, nice man,’ and thinking, I don’t know if he can do this because he’s so nice,’— she said. “And beating Goode — I thought, No one can beat Virgil Goode anyway, but not this nice guy.’—

It seemed that at least in this case, the nice guy finished first, and Humphreys returned to the Hill as a legislative correspondent for Perriello.

Humphreys graduated from William & Mary in 2006 with a double major in government and anthropology.

Ericke Cage, legislative counsel to Perriello, has a law degree from Rutgers University, but he has never technically practiced law.

The former high school government teacher received his juris doctorate degree in 2007 and then spent a year as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s fellow in Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D) office. In 2008, he was a legislative fellow in the Department of Veterans Affairs. When Perriello was elected, Cage couldn’t resist the opportunity to work for him.

“As a lifelong resident of the 5th district, I followed all of the political races and I had seen many people come and go trying to unseat our Representative there,— he said.

Cage — who some colleagues in the office fondly refer to as “the professor— — said he is content with working on the Hill but can see himself returning to teaching at some point. “Before I retire, I definitely want to go back into the teaching profession. I feel like it’s a great opportunity to give back to young minds,— he said.

Ihotu Ali was also campaigning leading up to Nov. 4, but she was stumping for Barack Obama in Las Vegas. A 2007 international studies and political science graduate of Macalester College, Ali sought out the practical experience her studies had not given her.

The long hours she spent working with constituents would come in handy only a few months later, when she was hired as staff assistant for Perriello. A contact in Charlottesville, Va., had put her in touch with Clavel, and she was drawn to the Representative’s work in international affairs.

Ali is the daughter of a Nigerian father, so she said she has always had some understanding of the “immigrant experience.— While studying abroad in Morocco, she became friends with a number of people from sub-Saharan Africa, which sparked a passion for refugee issues.

“I saw in the policy world there was an absence in discussing these issues, so I wanted to try and fill out that gap,— Ali said.

The staff members are committed to supporting Perriello on the Hill, but they are also making time to honor his commitment to service as a team. They’re all volunteering with the nonprofit Everybody Wins, reading to and mentoring local school children.

It’s not all work in their office, though. They’re also following the NCAA March Madness tournament together and engaging in a little friendly competition with their brackets.

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