‘You’ll have a freak-out moment’: First a new job, then a pandemic

Here’s how four job-switchers in Washington handled the transition

From left, former congressional staffers Mark Williams, Bridgett Frey, Nicole Tisdale and Josh Martin all took jobs in the private sector last year. (Courtesy Mark Williams, Nicole Tisdale and Josh Martin, Bridgett Frey photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
From left, former congressional staffers Mark Williams, Bridgett Frey, Nicole Tisdale and Josh Martin all took jobs in the private sector last year. (Courtesy Mark Williams, Nicole Tisdale and Josh Martin, Bridgett Frey photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 24, 2020 at 6:30am

If you’re waiting for the perfect time to switch jobs in Washington, there isn’t one. The revolving door can always trip you on the way out, no matter how carefully you plan.

For staffers who left Capitol Hill last year, the timing was especially rough. Just as they were settling into the rhythm of life in the private sector, the coronavirus pandemic hit and scrambled pretty much everything.

“You go from starting to feel OK, to ‘Holy s---, are we about to lose every single client we have?’” says newly minted lobbyist Mark Williams, who worked on the Hill for years as a Republican chief of staff.

That didn’t happen, and in the end, his plunge into the deep end of K Street only reinforced what he had heard: “You don’t know what you don’t know coming off the Hill. But you think you know it all.” 

Plenty of longtime aides said goodbye to Congress in the months before the pandemic, before they knew how turbulent 2020 would be. We asked four of them how they handled the transition. 

Mark Williams

Now: Lobbyist at Ferox Strategies
Was: Chief of staff to Rep. K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas
Left: July 2019, after more than 15 years on the Hill

Everyone told me it would be a huge learning experience and a learning curve, but you’re like, “Whatever, I spent 15-plus years on the Hill. I got this.”

The skillset is absolutely transferable moving from the Hill to downtown. I do think I over-estimated my value. “Ooh, I’m a chief of staff for a committee chair, I’m going to go make a million dollars.” That’s absolutely not the case.

I’ll be honest, I sat in my office two weeks into the job and looked around and was like, “Have I made the greatest mistake of my career?” And it wasn’t for any reason. People just told me this would happen — you’ll have a freak-out moment. Your phone will stop ringing, the emails will stop coming in because you’re not at the center of the storm anymore. And that’s exactly what happened.

On the Hill you’re used to a hundred emails before you get into the office and I had two — and it was because I was on some email list. My clients didn’t know me yet. At six months you start to feel comfortable in your role, with your clients and their needs, and then the pandemic hit.

We were able to weather the early storm. I’m hopeful we get to the other side in a really good position.

I went from a job that I felt like I could do very, very well and had a very good understanding of to something that I don’t. But I needed to heed the advice that I give every junior staffer: When you feel like the growth is done, then it’s time for a new challenge.

It’s almost like a graduation of sorts. The Hill is just younger, so you’re going from a younger subset to everyone being adults.

I think in the end my timing was OK, except that a pandemic hit. There was a part of me that, yeah, thought it would’ve been safer to stay on the Hill. But the whole reason I went this route was that I wasn’t interested in the safe route.

Bridgett Frey

Now: Director at marketing agency Bully Pulpit Interactive
Was: Communications director for Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.
Left: January 2020, after a decade 

The first day I went home at 7 o’clock and I didn’t get any emails and uninstalled and reinstalled the email client three different times because I thought, “It must be broken.” It turned out no one was emailing me at 10 o’clock at night.

Doing comms on the Hill is like high-stakes whack-a-mole, especially with Trump, especially in today’s media environment. You wake up and you have no idea what’s coming. You just know you’re gonna have to move quickly.

Corporate comms and life at a firm — it’s still high stakes, but you create long-term plans. I found it has been surprisingly transferable. Smart, thoughtful message and strategy is true on the Hill, it’s true for corporate, and it’s true for causes.  

Part of the transition that I really like is if I wake up on a Saturday morning and I’ve had my fill of political news, I just don’t have to read it. I can pick up a book instead and go walk my dog. 

Work-life balance is an elusive thing to find when you work on Capitol Hill, and it always felt to me like, “Oh, I’ll find that eventually. I’ll figure it out.” Once you have it it’s like, “This is really nice.”

There are times where I wish I was still standing off the floor listening to X or chatting with Y reporter, but it’s good perspective when you leave the Hill bubble. You can do good work and engage in causes that you care about, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be tied to the Hill.

It was a hard leap to make, but I’m glad I did it. There’s never a good time to leave. The world’s always blowing up somehow. 

Nicole Tisdale

Now: Founder of consulting firm Advocacy Blueprints and author of “Right to Petition” 
Was: House Homeland Security panel, counsel and director of outreach
Left: May 2019, after a decade

I had four clients in March and April, and I lost two of them because of the pandemic. To say I was anxious is an understatement. I had started thinking about, if I had to come back to the Hill in April or May, what that would look like.

I have these really clear pillars of my company — the purpose is to give people access to their government, specifically through Congress, and to empower Congress. 

So I just started reaching out. Staffers needed help with town halls because their constituents needed to know what was going on with the pandemic. I was like, “Alright, well that’s going to give people access to their government, it’s going to strengthen Congress as an institution and now you have a good news story about Congress.”

I struggled after the killing of George Floyd because I didn’t know what to do.

During the Charleston church shooting [in 2015], as a counterterrorism expert [working on the Hill], I knew exactly what to do. When the Las Vegas shooting happened [in 2017], I knew what to do — I gotta get the members ready, I gotta come up with some legislation, I need to do hearings.

Now I’m not in charge of legislation, I’m not in charge of hearings. I’m not good at marching because I’m too much of a policy wonk. That’s just not my ministry. So I’m like, “What do I do?”

So I sat down over the course of three days and I did what I would have done if I was on the Hill. I wrote policy. I came up with five policy initiatives around increasing awareness of your options after you have an incident with the police. And I basically started lobbying for them, [putting them in front of lawmakers].

It helped me go from a place of helplessness to remembering I have a skill and I have a mission that is just as much needed as a march. And it’s been good.

Josh Martin

Now: Lobbyist at American Defense International
Was: Chief of staff to Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas
Left: October 2019, after 17 years

I had worked a variety of different staff jobs — extremely rewarding, but I always like to learn more. I think I had reached my limit. There weren’t many more new experiences.

[When the pandemic happened, I was still pretty new to ADI, and] it was such a busy time of year. The NDAA markup was a couple of months away. [With social distancing,] it definitely requires a little more advanced planning. I can’t just pop into an office and say hi to somebody. I need to give them a phone call or send them an email, so it’s a little more involved.

But we’ve gotten more efficient in how we carry out our work. I’m not having to kill 30 minutes sitting in the Longworth cafeteria between meetings. I’m not going back and forth from the office downtown to the Hill. 

One thing I’ve tried to do is give honest feedback and direction. Members of Congress and staff need to be the people making decisions, and the best we can do on the consultant side or government relations side is to lay it all there for the staff, “This is how we view the world” and hope they are influenced by that. 

On the Hill, especially when you work in a member’s office, people won’t tell you what they really think. They’ll pull their punches. It’s great that people are nice and polite and they don’t want to offend, but sometimes you lose something from the conversation because there’s a buffer. 

I don’t experience that a whole lot anymore. In a way, that’s been refreshing, knowing where people stand. 

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.