It wasn’t a surprise that Matthew Felling would find his way back to the Senate as a communications director, but his destination might have been.
Felling, who left in 2015 after more than four years as Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s top spokesman, had previously worked as a journalist, including as a news reporter and anchor at the CBS affiliate in Anchorage, as well as at CBS News.
Since leaving, he’s been in the private sector, most recently as a senior director at Burson, Cohn and Wolfe (formerly Burson-Marsteller).
Felling himself said he has always been unaffiliated or a registered independent voter, but Murkowski is a Republican. Felling’s new boss is not.
He recently started as communications director for Sen. Angus King, the independent from Maine who caucuses with the Democrats.
But King and Murkowski share some similarities — they’re among the more moderate members of their respective conferences — and tend to want to be involved when bipartisan deals get made.
Ahead of the Super Bowl, Felling compared the approach of his new and old bosses to action on the football field.
“I think that more than just the two parties, I feel like Sen. King and Sen. Murkowski are both lawmakers who understand that … like on a football field, most of the action takes place between the 40-yard lines, right around the 50-yard line,” he said in an interview. “And they appreciate the fact that I knew how to traverse that, territories between the 35-yard, between the 40-yard lines.”
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How Felling landed the new job can serve as a lesson for other less partisan staffers who might be pondering a similarly unusual leap.
The communications director role came open when Kathleen Connery Dawe, who has long run the King communications shop, was promoted to chief of staff.
“I spent nearly five years with Sen. Murkowski’s office, and in that time, I established … relationships on both sides of the aisle,” Felling said. “Building relationships with press staffs and communications teams and kind of an appreciation of the work ethic.”
Felling said he worked to maintain his connections inside the halls of the Capitol during his years away.
“Human nature always detects things that stand out, and in D.C. where so much activity is transactional, if you can add an element of humanity or showing a personal interest or taking a little bit of extra care,” he said, “that sort of makes a mark, unfortunately, in the ecosystem of the Beltway.”
After her promotion to chief of staff, Connery Dawe reached out to Felling to see if he might be interested in returning to the Hill.
The two had worked across the aisle, as many Senate communicators do, when he was working for Murkowski. Their bosses, both from far northern states, have teamed up over the years on a number of policy issues, including as the leaders of the Senate Arctic Caucus, which they co-founded in 2015.
“The Arctic Caucus is the first entity in Congress to bring attention to the laws and policies at stake in the Far North. The purpose of the Caucus is to convene members of Congress, subject matter experts, federal agency heads, and the public to confront policy questions and advance a coordinated investment in arenas such as national security, scientific research, commerce, global trade, the environment, maritime affairs, and other relevant issues impacting the Arctic region,” Murkowski’s office said of the caucus.
The move to King’s office makes Felling one of the few staffers to have attended the regular meetings of both the GOP and Democratic communicators in the Senate, though King has had aides from both sides of the aisle in the past.
“He has a long track record of bringing in staff members from both parties,” Felling said of King, adding that the former Maine governor liked to have a “marketplace of ideas within his team.”