Hill Climbers: Surf to Turf

Posted October 27, 2009 at 4:04pm

On Capitol Hill, you are probably more likely to spot a high-profile celebrity than someone who has worked on the high seas. But, of course, the Hill is an adventure unto itself, capable of attracting even the occasional seafarer.

[IMGCAP(1)]Mike Rodriguez is one such addition to the Hill. In a place staffed mostly by new college graduates, Rodriguez, 52, brings unparalleled experience and knowledge on the high seas to his new life on the Hill.

In early October, Rodriguez joined the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation as a senior professional staff member. The self-described “new guy,— Rodriguez handles any number of maritime issues for the subcommittee as well as acts as a liaison on related issues.

A native of Blue Point, N.Y., Rodriguez first worked professionally as an officer with the U.S. Merchant Marine Corps. A 1979 graduate from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., Rodriguez spent 17 years at sea with the Merchant Marines.

“I wanted to see the world and travel when I was growing up,— he said. “Joining the Merchant Marine seemed like the best way to get an education and to do that.—

Rodriguez quickly confirmed that life at sea was the right path for him.

“The first ship I was on was based out of New Orleans,— he said. “I remember so much action taking place there that I knew for sure that’s what I wanted to do.—

After nearly two decades spent on the water and with missions spanning the world, Rodriguez came ashore in 1995. But leaving the water required Rodriguez to go back to school.

“When I came ashore, I needed to pick up the language of the people who knew the business of the maritime world,— Rodriguez said. “So I decided to be back in school.—

Little did Rodriguez know that getting a degree from the University of Baltimore in 1995 would lead him back to the very place he started nearly two decades earlier — the Merchant Marine Academy.

[IMGCAP(2)]Rodriguez began teaching there in 1997. In his second time there, Rodriguez worked as an academy training representative, supervising the at-sea training of hundreds of academy cadets. Rodriguez also taught maritime safety and business at the Global Maritime and Transportation School, a professional school for maritime industry members.

“While teaching, I was invited to speak at a number of events,— Rodriguez said. “Most people don’t realize it, but the shipping industry makes a tremendous contribution to our quality of life. Unfortunately, most people don’t know about the industry until they hear about bad things like oil spills or piracy.—

Then in 1998, Rodriguez earned a master’s in business administration from Dowling College in Long Island, N.Y.

After nearly five years back at the academy, Rodriguez transitioned to a new field. In 2001, Rodriguez joined the headquarters of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots as executive assistant to the president. At the outset, Rodriguez was hired to oversee contract administration for the union, but that soon changed.

“After 9/11, the Coast Guard began implementing a lot of security measures and it became my job to represent the union with respect to a lot of what was happening,— he said. “A lot of what was happening was not good.—

Rodriguez publicly opposed, among other things, restrictions limiting mariners’ access to the shore for rest and relaxation. Some of Rodriguez’s work with the union even involved testifying at the Coast Guard Subcommittee on behalf of labor.

“I got to know some of the committee staff while with the union and continued working with them,— he said. “When the subcommittee had an opening, they asked if I was interested and I decided to go ahead and apply.—

Rodriguez is also a lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve where he works in the Navy Intelligence Reserve. In 2006, Rodriguez was deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom for a special mission manning a merchant ship chartered by the Navy.

Health care might be a favorite topic on the Hill these days, but Rodriguez said working for the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation has been no less demanding.

“We just sent the Coast Guard reauthorization measure to the House floor,— Rodriguez said. “It was a challenge, and I recognized a lot of the issues discussed. It’s the process that I am still trying to get my head around.—

Outside of his new job, Rodriguez stays pretty busy raising his two sons with his wife, Juli. His time spent as a dad occasionally includes learning to woodwork with his sons Steven, 13, and Matthew, 9.

“Working with wood has been something I have wanted to do all my life,— Rodriguez said. “We have built a lot of nonexpert birdhouses with the wood tools I have.—

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