Breaking From the Political Science Major Mold
Hill Staffers’ Path Not Always a Straight Line
For the past year, I’ve written Roll Call’s Hill Climbers column, which profiles Congressional staff members on the Hill. And after 55 articles, it’s safe to say that I’ve gotten to know the “cookie-cutter Hill staffer” very well.
They typically earned political science degrees and belonged to their college Republican or Democratic clubs. Most of them volunteered on campaigns. Almost all of them interned for Members of Congress from their home states.
But not every staffer fits into this mold. In fact, I’ve met a number of individuals who took unusual paths to land jobs Capitol Hill.
So if you’re contemplating a career change but aren’t sure whether you’d fit in with a Congressional staff, or are just looking to challenge your notion of who makes up our lawmakers’ offices, here is a roundup of some atypical career paths that I’ve seen people successfully take en route to Washington.
Representing a sports team is a lot like representing a Member of Congress: The goal is to help your employer win and hope that they don’t stir up too much controversy along the way.
That’s why it comes as little surprise that a handful of individuals who work in politics got their start in sports — and even played for some of the teams.
David Beltran, press secretary for Rep. Sam Farr, says his current job with the California Democrat isn’t a huge departure from his old gig as the LA Galaxy soccer team’s media outreach director.
A self-professed soccer fan, the 29-year-old couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work on behalf of one of his favorite teams. Doing outreach to the Hispanic community for the Galaxy led him to eventually seek similar work with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), which then inspired him to bring his talents to D.C. last December.
Communications Director DJ Jordan also has experience working in sports. Before he started with the House Small Business Committee in March, the Virginia native worked as a production assistant for Comcast SportsNet.
His draw to sports may have stemmed from his personal experience in the field; Jordan played football at Liberty University.
But as he became involved in the production side of sports, he was inspired to get more involved in news and took a job with Fox News Channel. After covering Congressional hearings and committees, he decided to take a job with the committee.
“That’s the story of my career: just getting bugs and coming closer and closer to fulfilling them,” he said.
As a journalist, it was surprising to hear how many Hill staffers were once scribes for various newspapers and publications around the country.
But after hearing some of their stories, it makes sense that a former journalist would thrive on the Hill, where media and politics reign.
Jonathan Lipman, who became communications director for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) last fall, was a longtime political journalist before he decided to play for the other side and become involved in politics himself.
After seven years as a beat reporter in Chicago, Lipman’s anxieties about the future of the newspaper industry grew. With a baby on the way, the 33-year-old ditched his press pass for politics and headed to Capitol Hill. But he still draws on his reporter days.
“When I applied for the job, they asked if I thought I could handle Washington politics,” Lipman said. “I said, ‘With all due respect, this ain’t Cook County. I’ll be fine.’”
Rebecca Neal also left her journalism career to pursue politics. After covering everything from the Indianapolis 500 to Hurricane Katrina, she decided it was time for a change and landed a job as press secretary with then-Sen. George Voinovich this past summer.
But not everything changed, as Neal still used many of the same writing techniques in her role with the Ohio Republican.
“While I’m not reporting anymore, I feel like I’m using the same set of skills, just on the other side,” Neal said.
Whether it’s growing up in a military family or serving themselves, numerous Capitol Hill staffers have said that their military backgrounds helped shape their future.
For Erik Elam, who served a stint in the Army and is currently enlisted in the U.S. National Guard, his gig as legislative director for Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) shares several similarities with his military past. Both require passion, patriotism and a penchant for long hours.
Although Communications Director Amber Marchand didn’t serve in the Army, most of her family did, which gave her an appreciation for the military and her current gig with freshman Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Fittingly, the 29-year-old has also worked for the House Homeland Security Committee and the Department of Homeland Security.
“I’ve always been interested in military-related issues and veterans, because that’s the environment I grew up in,” she said. “Being able to put my degree to use in an environment that’s so meaningful to me is perfect.”