It’s no secret that Capitol Hill is populated with hundreds of would-be House Members and Senators, who dream of one day becoming the boss as they toil long hours in largely underpaid, thankless positions.
These starry-eyed young politicos look up to the likes of Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) or Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), all of whom at one time labored as Hill staffers.
But that’s not how it happened in the case of Virginia Johnson (R), who recently left behind “a really great career and a uniquely secure spot on Capitol Hill” with the hopes of returning to the 109th Congress wearing a Member pin.
Johnson, a former senior aide to the House ethics and Armed Services committees, left Washington, D.C., last fall and began working full time on her uphill effort to unseat freshman Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) this November.
Miller was elected to the newly created 13th district, a seat the Tar Heel State picked up during the most recent round of Congressional reapportionment. The district runs from Raleigh to Greensboro and encompasses four counties along the Virginia border.
“I had not ever given it much thought until we picked up this new seat a few years ago,” Johnson said in an interview Monday. “As I sat there and watched the race unfold a couple years ago … and then learned more and more about Brad Miller, I thought it would be useful for me to come back and challenge him” in 2004.
Johnson, who hails from Reidsville, N.C., moved to Greensboro last November and began running for Congress full time.
“It’s a dramatic change in my standard of living too, I might add,” Johnson said. “Going from nice job to no compensation.”
When reminded that candidates are now permitted to pay themselves a salary, Johnson quickly batted down the politically explosive idea.
“They are, but I’m not going to do that,” she said.
Johnson employs two full-time staffers and has raised about $80,000 for her campaign, with $45,000 left in the bank at the end of March. She has contributed about $15,000 in personal funds to the race.
Johnson said she began testing the waters for a run against Miller early last year, and she was putting the pieces of her campaign together in her spare time while she was still working her committee jobs. She received strong encouragement from her friends and colleagues in Washington, to whom she is known as “Ginny.”
“From a selfish standpoint, I wanted her to stay,” said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), chairman of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct who heaped effusive praise on his former aide. “On the other hand, you want her to go live her dream.”
Hefley is listed on her campaign Web site as one of several Members who have endorsed Johnson, many of whom have also contributed to her campaign.
Among the others are Reps. Cass Ballenger (N.C.) and Duncan Hunter (Calif.), the Armed Services chairman for whom Johnson once worked.
Several Members with past or current ties to the ethics panel have also supported Johnson’s campaign: Reps. David Hobson (Ohio), Nancy Johnson (Conn.), Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Jim McCrery (La.), Lamar Smith (Texas) and former Rep. Jim Hansen (Utah).
Kirk, who was elected to succeed his former boss, Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), in 2000, has also been supportive of Johnson. Last year she held a fundraiser in Washington, co-hosted by Kirk, Hefley, Smith and Johnson.
“One of the good things about working as committee staff, you get to work pretty closely with a lot of great Members,” Virginia Johnson said.
Johnson also noted her unique Hill experience as a nonpartisan ethics committee staffer, a position in which she worked closely with Democrats.
“I get a lot of emotional support from some of them, in a clandestine fashion,” Johnson said, referring to Democratic staff colleagues. “But no overt support. No traceable support.”
Johnson began working for the ethics committee as a counsel in 1996 during one of the panel’s most bitter partisan conflicts: the investigation of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga).
But Johnson took on an even more challenging job when she became counsel to the ethics subcommittee headed by Hefley investigating wide-ranging allegations against former House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bud Shuster (R-Pa.), one of the most powerful and combative lawmakers in the House.
While the ethics committee ultimately settled the case against Shuster with a letter of reproval, the mammoth staff report documenting a pattern of official misconduct by Shuster and his former chief of staff was devastating.
The staff report infuriated Shuster, who took to the House floor and lashed out at the committee staff who produced it. He charged that witnesses called “by the staff attorneys were intimidated, were threatened, and were harassed.”
In January 2001, Shuster abruptly resigned from Congress. Hefley, meanwhile, became chairman of the ethics committee and moved Johnson up to be his personal counsel on the committee. He was so taken with her work that he also brought her on as counsel to the Armed Services Committee, where he is a senior member.
“I think if she gets through this primary I think she’s going to get enormous support from Members up here,” said Hefley, who still keeps in touch with Johnson.
In 2002, Miller won 55 percent in the newly created 13th district, a Democratic seat that he helped craft for himself from his perch as chairman of the state Senate’s redistricting committee.
Miller is still dealing with the fallout from that campaign, after a Wake County Superior Court judge ruled last month that enough evidence exists to continue a defamation lawsuit brought by his 2002 opponent, Carolyn Grant.
Grant, a Raleigh businesswoman and former state Board of Transportation member, claimed that Miller made false claims in his campaign ads. The judge found that there was evidence to support only one of Grant’s defamation charges.
The judge “has thrown out the bulk of Ms. Grant’s claims on a preliminary motion,” Miller said in a statement. “We will present our arguments and our evidence on the rest if this case goes to trial.”
Meanwhile, Miller had little to say about his current challenger and her strong ties to many of his colleagues.
“The vast majority of votes will be cast in North Carolina not in Washington, which stands to my benefit,” he said last week.
Johnson was the only Republican to have filed against Miller as of Tuesday. The state’s filing deadline is Friday.
“I think she’ll be seen as a viable challenger,” Hefley said, conceding it is difficult to beat an incumbent. “It appears to me she’s doing all the right things.”
The 13th district voted narrowly for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, and Johnson said she believes national and state Republicans consider it a swing seat.
“We believe that with the right candidate, and getting our message out, and running a very aggressive and well-organized campaign, which we certainly are doing,” Johnson said. “We think that we’re going to give him quite a run for his money.”
Damon Chappie contributed to this report.