A Bipartisan Networker
One of the few places that Republicans have the majority these days is at the House Chiefs of Staff Association.
The board of directors of this nonpartisan group of more than 480 chiefs of staff — including chiefs in leadership offices and committee staff directors — is composed of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. George McElwee, chief of staff to Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), heads the organization, which aims to gather chiefs for professional development and networking.
“What we’re trying to do is bring people together,— McElwee said. The group hosts monthly lunches in conjunction with the Congressional Management Foundation as well as guest speakers and seminars on hiring. The association also holds tours of the Smithsonian and the National Zoo at which families are welcome and friendships are often born.
One recent success the association achieved is the reinstating of a writing class offered by the CMF through the Chief Administrative Officer. The class, which serves some 250 offices and teaches staff assistants how to write to constituents and other types of assignments they are likely to encounter on the Hill, had been cut for budgetary reasons and then revived when the chiefs expressed their outrage.
McElwee was particularly happy about this development and how it will affect his office because he said writing is the single most important skill that he seeks in hiring.
“We can teach them the other stuff,— he said, adding that staff assistants often join his office with larger aspirations and that strong writing skills are key to their advancement.
McElwee has been able to share the experiences he has had in coaching staffers with other chiefs in the association. He has also been able to compare notes on how to handle different situations and use the advice of other chiefs to guide him in managing Dent’s office.
A series of happy coincidences advanced McElwee from campaign volunteer to Dent’s chief of staff. A native of Pennsylvania’s 15th district, he had worked for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and was volunteering on Dent’s first campaign in 2004. McElwee was hoping Dent would be able to help him get a job in Pennsylvania so he could live near his family. He interviewed for a position back home but didn’t get the job.
On election night, the newly elected Congressman, who knew McElwee was available, asked him to come to D.C. to run his office. Since a job in Pennsylvania hadn’t come to fruition, the next best thing for McElwee was to work for a Congressman with ties to his family and friends back home.
“I really respect Charlie and the person he is and how he puts the community first,— McElwee said. “It’s my hometown. It’s where I grew up. It’s my parents and my sisters that he represents.—
While McElwee has pride in his home district, that doesn’t make it any easier to wade through the massive amount of work he faces each day. From staffing issues to high-profile votes to constituent services, no two days are alike, and it can be tough to stay organized. McElwee said he values his staff’s drive and upbeat attitude despite often being overwhelmed.
“Our inbox is never at zero. It can be a pretty daunting task and it can be hard to hit every day,— he said. “I understand the amount of work they have, and they still have a smile on their faces.—
McElwee said it’s the thank you notes and phone calls from constituents that keep him and his staff going. For instance, he recently received an appreciative call from a constituent from the district who was able to fend off a mortgage lender after a staffer in Pennsylvania helped him get the paperwork he needed. “It doesn’t get any better than that,— he said. “That’s the part that shows who the staff is.—
Hiring staff members can be a lengthy process. McElwee likes candidates to meet not only with him and Dent, but also with the lower-level staffers.
“I try to go through multiple interviews on the staff level. It’s important to have some of the junior staff involved so I can get their input,— he said.
McElwee seems to have made good choices in the past. After all, five of his employees are first-generation Dent staffers who have stayed on since his taking office in 2005. Though he spends most of his time with the D.C. staff, McElwee is quick to praise those who work in the district.
“Just as vital is the staff in Pennsylvania,— he added. “Sometimes they’re not thanked as often as they should be.—
Keeping district and Washington staff on the same page can be a bit tricky, but McElwee has found a way to manage. “I have weekly staff meetings with the D.C. staff and we have the Pennsylvania staff on through conference call,— he said. This is a time for both staffs to share their experiences and ideas. He said it is particularly helpful when Pennsylvania staffers share stories about the casework they are dealing with so that the D.C. staffers understand what is important to constituents.
While synergy between the offices is important, McElwee also places a high value on professional growth. He often tells his staff to “advance until challenged— and encourages his subordinates to take classes and pursue higher degrees. Two members of the staff recently began graduate classes at the Naval War College, and another completed law school at Georgetown University.
“I stand in awe of not only their dedication and loyalty to the office, but their enthusiasm in advancing their education,— McElwee said.
This support from their boss may be the reason some staffers stick around for so long.
“I want them to feel free to initiate different programs or ideas that they have on how the office can better serve the constituents,— he said. “I don’t want anyone on staff to think they can’t do something,—