For Hill Staffers, a Risk Worth Taking

Posted January 15, 2004 at 1:45pm

After nearly three years toiling on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide for Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Dan Shin decided he had had enough.

“I was really happy working for Representative Honda … [but] I was also very frustrated with what was going on in Washington, with the direction the Bush administration was taking our country. I wanted to be part of the effort to get this country back on the right track,” he said.

And so in October, the 26-year-old New York native quit his job, loaded up a Ryder truck and headed north to New Hampshire to join Democrat Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in the crucial months leading up to the all-important, first-in-the nation primary.

Unlike some of his more senior colleagues on the Hill, Shin was hardly leaving for a high-profile position with the promise of a plum job in a future presidential administration. After all, Shin had traded in his lowly Hill aide status for 15-hour days as an area organizer in the Granite State’s Seacoast region and a salary “just barely above the poverty line.”

While Shin’s leap of faith appears to be the exception on Capitol Hill — no campaign to date has reported a massive influx of lower-level staffers — younger aides who have opted out of steady Congressional jobs for the vicissitudes of campaign life say the decision is often rooted in a sense of overarching urgency.

Election 2004, many say, may be their only chance to devote everything to a presidential campaign for an individual in whom they truly believe.

“I knew from the time I was in college I wanted to go to D.C. to have a career on the Hill,” said Susan Sheybani, who first arrived on the Hill after graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles in 2001. But when Bush-Cheney ’04 press secretary Terry Holt, with whom she had previously worked in then-Majority Leader Dick Armey’s (R-Texas) office, called her last summer to see if she wanted to interview for a position in the campaign’s press shop, the opportunity proved too tempting to pass up.

“It’s the single most important thing I can do at this point in my life,” gushed the 25-year-old Sheybani, who left her post as a press assistant for the House Homeland Security Committee after just a few months on the job to join the campaign in November. By working to re-elect Bush, “we are going to do the greatest good,” she asserted.

“It’s a very important election, probably the most important in my lifetime,” added Peter Knudsen, a former legislative projects aide to Honda who now serves as Portsmouth, N.H., regional director for Democrat Wesley Clark.

No Regrets

Seen through this lens, staffers say, any risk involved in their decision pales in comparison to the importance of seeing their candidate move into — or in Bush’s case, keep his key to — 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Knudsen, who first went to work for Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) short-lived presidential bid last summer before jumping to the Clark campaign a week after Graham withdrew from the race in October, said uncertainty was part and parcel of the campaign dynamic.

“It’s always a risk. People who come to work for a campaign need to be prepared for that,” he said. “You could drive yourself crazy thinking about hypotheticals.”

Added 22-year-old Mindy Finn, who recently gave up her legislative correspondent gig in Rep. Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) office to take on the mantle of deputy Web master for the Bush-Cheney ’04 eCampaign: “I’m a big believer in going with the flow … to know I had the opportunity to be a part of [the campaign] and passed it up — I would regret it.”

Moreover, noted Alex Swartsel, a 24-year-old communications assistant for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) who joined Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Conn.) presidential campaign, job-hopping is hardly a foreign concept on the Hill, where aides are known to switch jobs and offices on a whim.

“People my age move around all the time — especially on the Hill,” Swartsel said.

Although most staffers claimed idealism, not professionalism, was the motivating force behind their decision to hit the trail, there’s no denying the benefits younger aides can glean from the experience, say campaign veterans and former Hill staffers.

“It’s scary to be 25 years old and giving up a secure job in a House office to go to a campaign in a remote place, but the risk is worth it because you are going to get a better job afterwards,” said Jim Farrell, a former communications director to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) who left the Hill twice during his tenure to work on campaigns. “I always tell new, young kids to get out there … if they want to advance in Washington.”

“I would make it a requirement,” Holt added, referring to the campaign experience. “If you are looking at your career in the long term, you come back to Washington a far better candidate.”

‘Anything Is Possible’

Farrell added that campaigns — where youth and unlimited energy are prized possessions — also offer lowly aides the chance to take on broader responsibility than is usually offered on the Hill.

“If you are a young staffer with ambition, you leave the boring LC job and fight it out in a race and take on big responsibility,” said Farrell. “You can grab a great deal of autonomy on a presidential campaign that you’ll never see sitting in the basement of the Rayburn Building.”

And for the lucky few who put everything on the line, a slot in the future administration is never entirely beyond the realm of the achievable.

“Anything is possible,” said one senior Bush-Cheney ’04 staffer.

Members who lose aides to the campaign trail, such as Honda — who has watched no less than four staffers depart for three different presidential campaigns — also praised the educational value of a stint in the field.

The opportunity to join a presidential campaign provides “professional and life lessons that will serve them the rest of their careers,” Honda said in a statement. “I’m happy to spread the wealth in our effort to take back the White House.”

But what will happen to all those bright-eyed aides to Democratic aspirants who fail to advance to the final round of the presidential contest?

“I have yet to have a staffer depart for a campaign whom I would not rehire if the opportunity presented itself,” Honda said.

And despite the across-the-board optimism of Democratic campaign aides that their Democrat will be the Democrat, it’s an undeniable fact that the results of Monday’s Iowa caucuses and next week’s New Hampshire primary, along with the half-dozen or so contests that follow on Feb. 3, will likely signal the end of the line for many of the Democratic presidential hopefuls and their staffs.

While few would speculate on what they would do if their candidates fell short of the Democratic nomination or ultimately the presidency, others, like Mitch Stewart, who left a research assistant position in Sen. Tim Johnson’s (D-S.D.) office to be the Northeast Iowa regional field director for Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) bid, said that he could still parlay his campaign contacts into future employment.

“The one good thing about working on campaigns is you get to meet a lot of people. I have a lot of contacts, so I’ll be able to find something pretty quickly,” he said, before adding with a nervous laugh: “But that won’t happen.”