Rep. Darin LaHood has been spending a lot of time in his car lately.
“My wife and I have three teenage boys that of course are at home now,” he said in a phone interview last month. “So I find myself retreating to the garage in my car and locking the doors and trying to get as much Wi-Fi as I can.”
Never has the office seemed so cramped, and he’s been around politics for a while. As the pandemic upended routines around the country, the Illinois Republican took a moment to recall his earliest days working for Congress, first as a “glorified” intern and then as an Appropriations Committee staffer.
He learned from watching his father, Ray, who was a staffer back then too and would go on to serve in the House. But the younger LaHood also found lifelong mentors in his bosses, the husband and wife team of Rep. Jerry Lewis and chief of staff Arlene.
They still keep in touch. “Those are really strong relationships,” he said of the people he met on the Hill in his twenties, playing softball or hanging out at the Hawk ’N’ Dove — exactly the kind of activities currently on hold.
Q: When did you decide to come to Washington?
A: I graduated college in 1990. In the summer of ’89, I did a two-month internship on Capitol Hill. My home congressman at the time was Bob Michel, so I worked for him that summer, and that was my first exposure.
Obviously, my dad was a member, but he got elected in ’94, so when I was there he wasn’t a member. I never spent any time in D.C. when I was growing up. I maybe had been there once or twice as a tourist, but I grew up in Illinois.
I was a political science major, but the internship really gave me the bug. After I graduated I moved out to D.C. and lived on a friend’s couch and basically started sending out resumes to all Republican members on the House side to try to get a job.
I eventually ended up getting kind of a glorified internship with the House Republican Conference, which at the time was chaired by Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. That was in September of 1990. Initially, it was unpaid, and then within a month I started getting paid.
I worked there, and I also worked at a bar in Georgetown. Essentially, I was a grunt. We didn’t have computers or technology the way we do now. My job was photocopying everything and making sure all the members got the information, running around Capitol Hill.
We were in the minority then, but after about four months, I ended up in Jerry Lewis’ personal office. They had a legislative correspondent that had left, and so I transitioned over there. I worked up to a legislative assistant, did that and then eventually worked on the Appropriations Committee for Lewis.
I left in June of ’94. They took over the House in November of ’94, and that’s when my dad ended up getting elected. He got elected in that wave, when of course Gingrich came in as speaker. I was in the minority the entire four years that I served as a staffer.
Q: Your father was chief of staff to Michel at that time?
A: Yeah, he worked for Michel for 12 years, around that. He was his district director up until ’88, and then he became his chief of staff in ’88-89 and served in that role until he got elected.
Q: What was that dynamic like being able to work pretty close to your dad?
A: Growing up in politics back in Illinois, obviously my dad had been a mentor to me, but it was great that I could get guidance from him when he was a staffer. We spent a lot of time together when he was there. He didn’t live in D.C. He commuted back and forth when he worked for Michel. He would be there during the week and whenever we were in session. I really enjoyed it, following the dynamic of Michel being leader, being in the minority and again trying to win back the majority.
Q: You said you were living on other people’s couches. How did that work out?
A: When I first got out there, I lived on a couch of a guy named John Feehery, who ended up as the press secretary for Denny Hastert and now works as a lobbyist. John’s been on Capitol Hill for 25 years. I lived on his couch until I was able to get a paid job with Lewis.
My first house was at 312 Maryland Ave. on the Senate side, which was a group house. I think at the time we had seven of us living there. It’s a huge house, and I lived there for about a year and a half. I can’t remember what the rent was, but it was very, very cheap. I lived at two other homes over the four years, but they were all group homes with other young staffers from Capitol Hill.
Q: How important was mentorship for you?
A: I couldn’t have asked for a better boss than Jerry Lewis. He treated his staff as family. At the time, his wife, Arlene, was the chief of staff. She ran the office.
I can’t say enough good things about them and the way they treated people with respect. I tend to think that helps me now as a member of Congress and how I deal with my staff, because you remember what it’s like to be a young intern or young LC or young LA. Some people, it’s like pins and needles dealing with their boss.
It was all young people, too, in our office. I just remember the warmth and sincerity that came from Jerry and Arlene. Frankly, when I had to make the decision to go to law school when I was 25 or 26, it was a very tough decision to make.
Q: What would you say to staffers trying to find their footing on Capitol Hill?
A: Relationships are so important. You gotta work hard. You gotta be committed and dedicated to the job, but you also have to build relationships.
I think about those relationships I still have today with people I worked with back for those four years. Those are really strong relationships.
The other thing that I would just mention, we have a very robust internship program in our office. I think we’ve averaged seven or eight or nine interns every year I’ve been in office. Getting exposure to D.C. and an opportunity to learn about how our government works and how Capitol Hill works is so helpful, whatever you want to do.
The last thing I would mention, for four years I played on the softball team. It was called the Desert Rats because Lewis represented part of the Mojave Desert and Yucca Valley. We had a great team, not all Lewis staffers but members from Southern California. We would all go out afterward. Those are great memories hanging out at the Hawk ’N’ Dove. There used to be a bar on the Senate side called My Brother’s Place, that was a pretty popular spot on Friday afternoons after softball games. It’s not there anymore.
I still keep in touch with Jerry and Arlene. They’re retired in Southern California. I still have a great working relationship with them and their former staffers. We get together occasionally, and I really continue to have fond memories of them. I think that’s made me a better member, the work I did for Jerry and Arlene.
This conversation from April 17 has been condensed and lightly edited.