Politics

Hail to the Chiefs

Incoming members look to different corners for chiefs of staff

Minh Ta, former chief of staff to Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, is moving over to freshman Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester‘s office to serve as her chief. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With President-elect Donald Trump rounding out his Cabinet, new members of Congress have been going through a similar — although more predictable — process of filling out their congressional offices. 

The first and most important hires are almost always the chiefs of staff, who come from all walks of political life. Most commonly, new members tap their campaign managers or the chiefs of departing members. They also often retain members of their kitchen cabinets, or close personal advisers, as their chiefs. 

Every new member is looking for someone or something a little bit different, and they turn to different corners to help them find it.

The party committees maintain résumé banks. It’s in their best interest to get newly elected members set up with good staff. Sometimes, a member-elect’s campaign apparatus sticks around to ensure a smooth transition. “When we have a client who gets elected, we’re going to be there to help get them settled,” said a GOP general consultant who has helped lawmakers through the process, conducting chief interviews for a member-elect in November. 

“I operate in the campaign world. I’ve never been in an official capacity, so it’s fun to identify equals on the official side,” she said.  

New members who won safe seats have had the better part of a year to contemplate their hires. Indiana Rep. Jim Banks won a competitive GOP primary for the state’s 3rd District in May, and later sought the advice of retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats, who once represented much of the same northeast Indiana area in the House.

Matt Lahr, who was Coats’ deputy chief of staff and communications director, is now Banks’ chief. Lahr is an Indiana native whose family has ties to the district. It was important to him to stay involved with the Hoosier delegation.  

Banks wanted someone with connections to the state and the district and said he was naturally drawn to people who’d worked for Coats. But if there are two minds about hiring chiefs — picking those with previous chief experience and those without it — Banks went with the latter.

“[Kevin] McCarthy was the first person who said to me after the primary that if I hire someone and give them the opportunity to be a chief, that’s great motivation for that individual to work very hard and create loyalty,” Banks said of advice he received from the House majority leader. 

Democratic Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, the first woman and first African-American to represent Delaware in Congress, took the opposite approach. She’s hired Minh Ta, chief of staff to Wisconsin Democrat Gwen Moore, praising his political and policy chops.

Ta met Blunt Rochester when helping her with debate prep during the campaign. His experience working for members of the Financial Services Committee (he was legislative director for Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison) will be useful for Delaware’s at-large member, given the First State’s ties to the financial services industry.

Ta has worked on the Hill for 10 years, and as tough as it is to leave a job that he loved in “Moore-land,” he said it’s exciting to help shape a new office.

That responsibility includes everything from overseeing the selection of computer software to hiring staff. And because Blunt Rochester is taking over from another Democrat — John Carney, who was elected governor — part of the hiring process involves discussions with Carney’s congressional staff, especially since some of them, unlike Ta, have Delaware ties.

If new members have received promotions, they often promote their staff, too. Indiana GOP Sen. Todd Young, for example, is taking his House chief with him. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is retaining all the senior staff from her House office, including the Illinois Democrat’s former chief, who most recently served as her campaign manager. 

Campaign managers often move over to the official side, especially when the seat changes partisan hands and retaining staff from the outgoing member is not an option.

New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan is bringing campaign manager Marc Goldberg, also a veteran of the Democrat’s previous gubernatorial campaigns, to lead her Senate team. Likewise, Nebraska GOP Rep. Don Bacon, a retired Air Force brigadier general, named his campaign manager Mark Dreiling as his chief. Dreiling, a retired Air Force captain, previously worked in the state legislature and for former Rep. Lee Terry, who held the 2nd District seat before being defeated in 2014. 

Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin knew the day he declared his candidacy for Congress that his chief in the Virginia Senate, who also managed his campaign, would become his congressional chief if he won. 

“One of the things you have to be honest with yourself about is, ‘Who are you going to listen to?’” McEachin said.  

Abbi Easter has been with the congressman since 2001. “I feel very fortunate to have someone who’s been with me for that length of time,” McEachin said. “Not everyone has that luxury.”

A similar bond drove Rep. Dwight Evans’ decision to bring his state legislative chief with him to Congress. Kim Turner joined the Pennsylvania Democrat in 1993 as a press secretary and came up through the ranks of the legislature with him. She took two leaves of absence to manage his earlier unsuccessful campaigns for governor and Philadelphia mayor.  

“I certainly wanted to ensure a seamless transition,” Turner said. And that’s why, she said, the congressman turned to “someone that he trusts and that is able to articulate his vision to the staff.”   

Indiana Rep. Trey Hollingsworth went with a hybrid approach. His campaign manager Rachel Jacobs will serve as a district-based chief, but the GOP congressman will also have a D.C.-based chief, who will report to Jacobs.

“We’re going to have a very small D.C. office, stripped down, devoid of a lot of people so we can add more people to the district itself,” said Hollingsworth, who campaigned against the Washington establishment in a race that was more competitive than expected for a safe Republican seat. 

The Congressional Management Foundation distributes a 300-page guide to new members about how to set up their offices. Number four on their list of mistakes to avoid is the tendency, especially among those who campaigned on an outsider message, to not hire enough D.C. veterans.

To lead his D.C. office, Hollingsworth has chosen Capitol Hill veteran Rebecca Shaw, deputy chief of staff and legislative director to retiring Rep. Chris Gibson, a moderate New York Republican. 

Asked if he sought Gibson’s recommendation on the hire, Hollingsworth demurred: “I was a lot more focused on some of the other references she gave.”

But Hollingsworth said he wasn’t just looking for someone with Capitol Hill experience. What was more important, he said, was their “philosophical mesh.” 

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