The first time Alex X. Mooney ran for office, he was still in college.
“Well, it wasn’t much of a race,” he says of running for state legislature in New Hampshire while he was a student at Dartmouth.
One day he was hanging out with his fellow College Republicans. The next he was on the ballot for a real election, keeping it warm for his party in a long-shot bid.
“It was, like, a two-week campaign,” he recalls.
“I did learn that just because people are smiling and shake your hand and say, ‘Good luck’ does not mean they are walking in and voting for you,” he laughs.
In his mind, the next job title on his résumé was even more important: intern. Mooney went to Washington in 1993 to work for Rep. Ed Royce, kicking off a stint as a congressional staffer.
Giving tours or sorting mail didn’t feel like a step down; instead, it was formative. Many of his fellow Hill staffers had political ambitions of their own, he found.
“Their goal was to run for Congress, be the congressman. But honestly, most end up not doing it,” he says.
Mooney did. The Republican now represents West Virginia’s 2nd District, and he keeps his old intern ID badge as a memento in his desk drawer.
Talking with Mooney by phone last month, I asked him about his earliest days on the Hill.
Q: What was it like interning for Royce?
A: When constituents would come into the office, he would look them right in the eye, and that always stuck with me. Shake somebody’s hand, look them in the eye. I learned that from Ed Royce.
And then, of course, I learned how to give a Capitol tour. To this day, when I show people around, I point out things I learned as an intern, like how the painting of Pocahontas being baptized was supposed to show the mixed reactions of the Native Americans to Christianity. I always found that very interesting.
Royce was adamant about his constituents getting nice tours. I gave ones that were an hour, an hour and a half, because if they came all the way from [his home state of] California, they would get a nice big tour.
For an intern, getting tour trained is a great opportunity to learn about the history of our country, how this place really works.
Q: Next you worked for Rep. Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland in 1994.
A: They called me “staff assistant,” but I was basically his driver, and that guy, he was a workaholic. He had me drive him all day Saturday, all day Sunday, evenings.
He was elected in ’92 in a bit of a unique circumstance. The incumbent [Beverly Byron] had lost her primary in a massive upset to a more liberal Democrat, and Bartlett won the general.
He was surprised himself, so he was heavily targeted, supposedly, in ’94. But he worked so hard, he went everywhere, he shook hands, toured all these businesses, met all these people, and he was reelected.
He was a very good listener. That’s a lost art for many people in this world.
Q: Were you paid enough?
A: Heck no. I made $16,000 the year I was a driver. That was my salary.
They’re great experiences, you’re making a big difference, but you’re not getting rich with a Hill job, and people need to understand that when they apply.
Q: Then you went to work for the House Republican Conference.
A: That was hard, because I was at the Legislative Digest.
Our job was to take these big committee reports, hundreds of pages, and digest it to 20 pages, like CliffsNotes. The legislative aides depended on our summary to know how to advise their bosses.
Well, guess what? If the bill comes out of committee on a Friday night, what do you think I’m doing all weekend? Saturday, Sunday, sometimes I stayed at the office until 2 a.m., and then Monday morning rolls around, and guess what, people want to offer amendments, so we have to summarize the amendments.
[Tweaking] a semicolon or a comma, changing a word from “shall” to “may” — those are huge changes in a bill. I can still look at a bill and pretty quickly digest it in my mind.
I probably have the equivalent of a master’s in legislative policy or something from doing that.
Q: John Boehner was in charge of the conference at the time. What do you remember of him?
A: He would just pop his head in for, like, maybe two minutes and say, “Man, you guys are working so hard, I appreciate ya,” and we were just starstruck. We were like, “Oh, wow, he appreciates us.”
Yeah, you never know where Boehner is going to end up. He ended up being speaker of the House, and here I was running for Congress in 2014, and John Boehner, my old boss, knew me and remembered me.
His longtime chief of staff, Barry Jackson, and I stayed in touch throughout the years. He actually wrote me a check, even in my Republican primary, the first time I ran [for Congress]. Look it up, the FEC report, Barry Jackson.
I’m a tea party guy, but I was able to work with all people in the Republican Party, even John Boehner, who is not a tea party favorite.
Q: What advice do you have for staffers?
A: I’ll tell you, I hate it when my staff eat lunch in the office. Go network.
Go to lunch if any group is hosting a luncheon event, Heritage or some other foundation. Or a seminar after work. It’s a mistake to just go back to your apartment in the evening and sit there and watch TV.
And you can go by yourself. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female. You can go to an event by yourself.
We’re not having receptions today [in the Capitol complex] because of COVID, but we will start up again, God willing. Most receptions are [like] an architecture society or the Bankers Association. They’re all bipartisan groups. They’re happy to have folks. You’re actually doing them a favor by showing up.
All of us were like you once. You could be intern, then you could be speaker of the House one day. Everybody seems to know that Paul Ryan was once an intern and waited tables somewhere. Folks running these associations know that interns turn into staff assistants, and staff assistants turn into [legislative correspondents] and [legislative assistants], and that’s the person you’re talking to about your issue.
Q: When you first came to the Hill, did you build any networks with other Cuban-Americans?
A: When I was in high school and college, my mom’s older brother, my uncle Xavier Suarez, was the mayor of Miami. So when I came to work on Capitol Hill, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart from Florida, he knew all about me. His first job in politics was [for] my uncle.
He’s like, “You’re Xavier’s nephew, man.” That was true of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo too; they all knew my family and my Cuban heritage.
I can’t say it really helped me run for Congress — it didn’t — more of a fun fact, I’d say, but personally, sure, it was inspiring.
I remember seeing my uncle in the late ’90s [at a family reunion], and he walked by and he said, “You’re after my own heart.” Why? He said, “Because you’re running for office.” I’m like, “Oh, OK.”
I understand that now. Now that I’ve run a bunch of times, I understand that those who put their name on the ballot are subjecting themselves to a different test in this world.
It’s daring. It’s scary — but it’s important that people do it. Somebody has to run. Somebody has to serve.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.