Rep. Jimmy Gomez learned firsthand how to network in bars, focus on the job and navigate the Hill’s degree-clogged pool of talent.
After graduating from Harvard in 2003, he was a staffer for Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a fellow California Democrat who served from 2001 to 2009.
Gomez saw a diverse staff in her office, which he has now recreated in his own.
Q: What was your role in Solis’ office?
A: I had just graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. It was 2003, and I knew I wanted to be in D.C. for about a year. My whole objective was to build relationships so I could go back to California and work in politics and government there, so I wanted to work for a Californian.
I wasn’t interested in working on the Hill just for the sake of working on the Hill. I had a job offer to go and work at the Democratic National Committee to be their executive director of the College Democrats, [but] if I wanted to work in politics, I wanted to work for a Latino member from California on the Hill.
I was doing a lot of issues, and I had to handle all the mail on all the issues. I was pretty much the freshman, as I am now, but the freshman legislative staffer. I had everything from animal rights, defense, veterans, you name it. Any issue that the staff didn’t want, it was on my plate. And then I was the liaison to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
I worked for Hilda from about July to March … and then I went and jumped on the Kerry-Edwards campaign shortly after that.
Q: How did you get your foot in the door?
A: I came from a background where my family has zero connections in politics. The guy who helped me get the job worked for [Nancy] Pelosi back then. I randomly met [him] at a bar in summer of ’02 when I was interning at the DNC. We became friends, and then when I was looking for a job, I asked him to kind of pass my résumé around. And that’s how I ended up coming to work for Hilda Solis.
You build connections over time, which I did. Honestly, a lot of my friends I made on the Hill when they were legislative staffers … became my first base of support when I ran for state Assembly.
Q: What challenges did you have as a staffer?
A: My general view of the Hill is it’s a challenging place. D.C.’s a challenging place. You think that you have a degree from Harvard and it’s a big deal, but everybody has a degree from Harvard, everybody has a degree from somewhere. People have master’s, Ph.D.s and law degrees. It’s a competitive place.
Q: What did it teach you about diversity on Capitol Hill?
A: I realized the worst place to be is in the minority in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then I said, “What’s even worse than that is if you’re a minority in the minority in the U.S. House of Representatives.” And what’s even worse than that is if you’re a woman who is a minority in the minority. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Hilda always had a good diverse staff. If you look at my office, it’s very diverse. You look for people who have the skills and the talent, and that’s the No. 1 thing. Diversity is a bonus.
My district is heavily Korean. It’s the largest Korean population of any congressional district in the country, so it was important to have a Korean staffer who could speak Korean. Andrew [Noh], I didn’t know he was Korean until after I interviewed him. I hired Andrew not because he was Korean, but because of his expertise on health care.
Q: What lessons did you learn from Solis?
A: I tell this to my young staff. … She saw that I was having some trouble with my legislative director because I wasn’t listening, I wasn’t focused, but she knew I was talented. She goes, “Jimmy, focus on the job you have in order to get the job you want.”
Oftentimes some members don’t want to lose staff because you have to train them again, you have a new dynamic. But I want my staff to be successful, I want them to move up the ladder.
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