Hill Climbers: Learning on the Campaign Trail

Posted January 23, 2009 at 3:58pm

The circumstances could have been better for a campaign event. It had been overcast all day, Nick Weatherbee recalled, and then the weather took a turn for the worse. A “torrential downpour” started, sending everyone running for cover under a nearby awning. Everyone, that is, except then-Congressional candidate and Weatherbee’s boss, now-Rep. Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.).

[IMGCAP(1)]A slew of American flags had been set up at the event in Syracuse, and when one fell, Maffei ran back out into the rain to retrieve it. For Weatherbee, it was a moment that defined his commitment to the campaign and to the candidate.

Maffei’s obvious dedication to his country was one of the many things that prompted Weatherbee to work for him in the first place.

“The guy carries a pocket-size Constitution with him wherever he goes,” Weatherbee said. “Stop him on the steps of Congress and ask him to open his jacket, and there’ll be a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, guaranteed. You don’t meet a lot of public figures that have as much heart as he does.”

After working as the campaign coordinator for the western region of the district Maffei now represents, Weatherbee was hired this month as a deputy district director based out of Monroe and Wayne counties.

Weatherbee holds the distinction of being the first person in his family to graduate from college. He studied history at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., and received a master’s degree in public administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

Working on Maffei’s campaign did lead to his job as a staffer, but Weatherbee was no stranger to politics. He worked on New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s 2006 campaign, as well as in the intergovernmental affairs division of Cuomo’s Syracuse office. He also served as special assistant to New York State Assemblyman Joe Morelle (D).

As much as it helps to be working for someone Weatherbee admires, it’s also nice to work for someone who was a staffer himself. Maffei was once press secretary for former Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), and he was communications director and senior adviser to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Weatherbee may even end up following in his boss’ footsteps, making the leap from staffer to politician. But, he says, that’s a little way down the road.

“For the time being, I’m definitely going to be on the Congressman’s staff,” he said. “Long term, I think I’d like to run for local office in Monroe County.”

Working for a Congressman who has been a staffer should be helpful to the rest of Maffei’s staff as well, especially his chief of staff, Dan Krupnick.

Maffei “is great about talking about things that work and don’t work,” Krupnick said. “He wants to make sure his staff is happy because a happy staff works hard.”

Like Weatherbee, Krupnick was struck by what he sees as a genuine passion for helping the people of their state.

“I met Dan for the first time in Julie’s Restaurant in downtown Syracuse,” Krupnick recalled. “Dan was passionate about the need to do things differently and find a way to work creatively to solve the problems that upstate has faced.”

It must have been quite a meeting, because Krupnick said he “packed up my bags, left my rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side and moved to Syracuse.”

During his team’s first few weeks in Washington, Krupnick has had his hands full with meetings and the various aspects of setting up an office — such as ordering BlackBerrys and getting them to the team back in New York. But he’s bringing a good attitude.

“The definition for everything is patience,” he said. Krupnick, 26, acknowledged that he is likely one of the younger chiefs of staff on the Hill, so he knows there are things he still has to learn.

“Part of it is understanding that I don’t know everything,” he said.

Krupnick does have political experience to draw on, however. He has worked for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s (D) political action committee, Citizen Soldier, as well as EMILY’s List. Before joining Maffei’s campaign, he worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

The American University graduate and North Bellmore, N.Y., native said he believes the central part of the state at last has someone who is really going to bring the change people have been hearing so much about.

“Central New York has been hard hit economically for decades,” Krupnick said. “There needs to be a coalition of people who are dedicated to the area. Someone’s got to get in there and give people an opportunity to come back.”

Krupnick is joined in the Washington office by fellow New Yorkers Kaii Torrence and Alex Krigstein.

Krigstein, who is from Binghamton, did a brief stint with the campaign in the final days of Maffei’s race after finishing an internship with New Jersey Rep. Steven Rothman (D).

When the campaign ended, Krigstein wanted to stay on, and he was looking to get back to the Hill. “I thought this was a good fit, an upstate New York Member, being from upstate N.Y.,” he said.

Krigstein heard the official word that he would be Maffei’s staff assistant on Christmas Eve, and he came to D.C. shortly after. A 2008 graduate of Dowling College on Long Island, N.Y., Krigstein would like to stay with Maffei for the next few years and then hopes to land a private-sector position, possibly as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.

Torrence first became involved with Maffei’s campaign last April, leaving a job with New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Clark to become the Congressman’s scheduler. She also had her eye on Washington when she joined the team.

The Le Moyne College graduate said she saw Maffei as someone who could make a difference in the area.

“You’re working for someone who really cares about their community,” she said. “We finally have someone who the people respond to.”

Being a Hill staffer also allows Torrence to give back on a more personal level. “I go home to my neighborhood and the little girls there see it’s possible to grow up and work for a Congressman,” she said.

Several other staffers have joined Maffei in his Washington and district offices.

Michael Whyland, who was communications director for Maffei’s past two campaigns, has signed on in the same position for the Syracuse office. He previously worked as a press officer for former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D). Whyland graduated from the State University of New York in Brockport with a degree in interdisciplinary communications.

Also working out of the Syracuse office is Jason Chiesa, who is the director of constituent services. Before coming to Maffei’s team, Chiesa was deputy regional representative for Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). Originally from the Syracuse area, he studied at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Terre Dennis is the constituent service representative in the Syracuse office. She is a student at SUNY-Empire State College and has worked in constituent services and as district office manager for former New York Republican Reps. Jim Walsh and Sherwood Boehlert.

Here in Washington, Jill Allen Murray is one staffer who brings her own Hill experience to the group. As deputy chief of staff, she will work with Krupnick and run the legislative shop. She spent four years as policy director for Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) and worked on former Democratic Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) 2004 presidential campaign. She earned her graduate and undergraduate degrees at Colgate and Syracuse universities and has something of a family legacy at both. She is the fourth generation in her family to attend Colgate and the third to study at Syracuse.

Rounding out the Maffei office is Abigail Gardner, the press secretary in D.C. She did press for the campaign, and previously worked for Spitzer/Paterson in the 2006 New York gubernatorial race. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and is originally from Pittsburgh.

Submit news of hires and promotions on Capitol Hill to Hill Climbers here