If you want to get your foot in the door on the Hill, go to your alumni network. That’s one of Ben Cline’s biggest takeaways from his early days as a staffer.
Cline, now a congressman himself, started out as a legislative correspondent for Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte. He met the Virginia Republican by volunteering at their mutual alma mater, Bates College.
The 1990s were a looser and less partisan time, says Cline, who remembers sledding down Capitol Hill and exploring Statuary Hall after hours.
It took him 25 years to go from newly minted graduate to freshman member of Congress, and he sees living in the moment as the key to his success. He now holds the same seat his boss once did.
Q: How did you become a staffer?
A: I interned for a couple of members during college, but in the middle of my college tenure at Bates, Goodlatte got elected. … He was a Bates alum.
Senior year, I was a political science major. I was class of ’94, and Goodlatte was class of ’74. I was hoping to come work on the Hill, and he was my first choice.
They were soliciting for volunteers to work reunion week, the week after graduation, and I found out from alumni relations that Goodlatte was coming back for his 20th. I said, well, I’ll volunteer. … I got to meet him and meet his wife. When they went back home, I sent in a résumé and came and interviewed.
Q: How important is working with your alumni network?
A: Well, it was critical in me landing my first job out of college. It was a big selling point.
I stayed with Goodlatte all eight years I was on the Hill as a staffer, just every two years moving up the ladder. … There were other Bates grads working in the Congress in different offices. [William] Cohen was a senator from Maine, and he had a couple of Bates grads working for him. [Olympia] Snowe had a couple of Bates grads.
So we have an active alumni network. I just went back for my 25th reunion at Bates last weekend. I was surprised and a little saddened that I wasn’t stalked by a poli sci major like I stalked my former boss.
Q: Do you feel your promotions — from legislative correspondent to legislative assistant to legislative director to chief of staff — were a normal progression, or were there things you did to go up the chain?
A: Patience is important. You want to do as much as you can as fast as you can, but being good at what you’re doing in the here and now is very important.
It’s true in whatever job you have. When I was a prosecutor and I was in lower court, I was trying to be the best juvenile, domestic relations prosecutor I could be. … When I became a defense attorney, I was initially doing a lot of traffic cases, speeding cases, but I was trying to be the best darn traffic defense attorney I could be.
Q: What was it like in the ’90s for a younger staffer just coming out of college?
A: Much the same as it is now: The pay is low and the cost of living is high when you’re a 22-year-old. I earned $20,000 a year to start as an LC for Goodlatte in ’94. That forced me to live in a group house, which enabled me to meet some great people.
You get your meals through free receptions, you try and go to as many briefings with whatever celebrity presenters you can find. Try and learn more about issues.
There was a little bit less partisanship, fewer sharp edges around the issues. I feel like today, people are more anxious to divide.
With Goodlatte … we focused on a lot of internet issues that were very bipartisan. So [I] worked across the aisle with staff for [Jerrold] Nadler, [Zoe] Lofgren and [Sheila] Jackson Lee, who are now my colleagues on the Judiciary panel.
I still feel like I can reach across the aisle in a bipartisan way with them and with all my colleagues on Judiciary, except for a few who don’t let down their guard quite as easily.
Q: What’s your favorite memory from your time as a staffer?
A: I don’t want to sound old, but do they even let you sled on Capitol Hill anymore? We used to do that. [Editor’s note — After a brief sledding crackdown, access has been restored.]
You used to be able to go out on the Capitol in the front plaza portico with the fountain; I don’t think you can do that anymore. Pre-9/11, you had a lot more freedom of access. I’d have friends come up, and we would wander through Statuary Hall and the Capitol at night.
For softball on the Mall, interns would have to go down and save the fields. The ones who were of age would end up buying the keg and sitting at home plate at about 2 o’clock on a Friday, waiting until the rest of the office showed up.
You make lifelong friends as a Hill staffer. … Staffers have been my groomsmen at my wedding, and they continue to work on the Hill today. Others cycled on and off the Hill. Some are lobbyists now, some are in the administration now. Some have left D.C.
Facebook is an amazing thing, and we’ve been able to keep in touch.
Q: You mentioned you were in a shared house with a bunch of other young staffers. What’s your living situation now?
A: I don’t know many freshmen who are in group housing right now. I do know that some members end up living together, but they find each other eventually, find like-minded associates.
I’m living in a studio on the Hill, and it’s way too expensive, but that’s real estate in Washington, D.C., especially with Amazon coming to town.
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