Hill Climbers: Been There, Done That.

Posted January 27, 2009 at 4:38pm

Even under the best circumstances, the first day at a new job can be nerve-racking. But when Kurt Bardella began working as the press secretary for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and as a spokesman for the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, there was no need for any of the usual jitters. [IMGCAP(1)]

Finding the office? He had been working a door down from there for more than a year.

Being able to handle the work? He had already worked press jobs for Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

Fitting in with co-workers? Bardella and Issa’s communications director had once been roommates.

No wonder he wanted the job.

“Basically, I camped out in the office for a year and a half and lobbied to be brought to their team,” Bardella joked.

Knowing the majority of Issa’s staff socially certainly sweetened the position, but Bardella said working for the Congressman and the Oversight Committee presents challenges that he has not taken on before.

“This committee is at the intersection of everything in our government,” he said. Issa “really requires the best of you.”

Bardella, 26, first became involved in politics when he worked on Bilbray’s campaign in 2006. He came to Washington, D.C., with the newly elected Congressman and left for Snowe’s office in December 2007. Last August, he rejoined Bilbray’s team, and in January, he came to Issa’s office.

Those moves haven’t gone unnoticed on the Hill. Bardella admits that

clippings from his previous Hill Climbers appearances are hung on a “wall of contention” in Bilbray’s office.

Bardella’s popularity prompts some gentle ribbing from his colleagues, especially his former roommate, Frederick Hill. The pals joked about outdoing each other in their interviews, but it’s all in good fun.

Hill, 28, who was recently promoted to communications director, is a veteran of Issa’s staff and has been working for the Congressman since 2001.

He got a memorable start on the Hill with California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s (R) office. He had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his second day as an intern was Sept. 11, 2001.

Unlike many other offices, Rohrabacher’s staff did not evacuate immediately, Hill recalled.

“We closed the blinds because we were afraid of glass blowing in” in the event of an attack on the Congressional office buildings, he said. “And [Rohrabacher] brought the staff into his office and led a prayer.”

Then it was business as usual as the staff continued taking constituent calls until the Capitol Police insisted they leave.

Rather than frighten Hill away, the experience only made him prouder to be in Washington during the uncertain days that followed. “I remember thinking afterward how proud I was to be an American and to be able to come to work here over the next few days,” he said.

Having worked for Issa for eight years, Hill can say from personal experience that there is “a tremendous amount of retention” on the staff.

If Hill ever does decide to leave, he said he will likely do something very different than the work he is doing now, rather than “try to find somewhere else what I’ve already found here.”

Issa has asked Jennifer Safavian to stay on as the panel’s chief counsel for oversight and investigations, and she is headed into her fifth year with the committee.

Safavian said she is looking forward to tackling new projects as the Obama administration gets settled in, but she doubts that anything will top the year that she worked on the case involving steroids in Major League Baseball. “Given the spectacle, the scope of it, it was a lot,” Safavian said.

Still, with a new committee chairman and Issa as the new ranking member, Safavian anticipates a busy year.

As a former private-sector lawyer, Safavian wasn’t so sure she would enjoy working on the Hill. She handled insurance defense cases at Plunkett Cooney, a private firm in Detroit, after graduating from Michigan State University College of Law, and then she continued in that line at a boutique firm in Georgetown. When a position with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee opened up in 1997, however, she decided to give it a shot.

Initially, Safavian said, she wasn’t too keen on her new job, which lacked the structure and procedure of private law.

“On the Hill, it varies from Member to Member; you’re not bound by attorney-client privilege; there’s no rules,” she said.

Ultimately, she warmed to the position and is ready to jump right into the issues that she will be working on this year and to “forge bipartisanship” with the majority office.

Several other committee staffers were promoted this month, including staff director Lawrence Brady. He had been a senior policy adviser for the committee and was a staff director on the Subcommittee on Energy and Resources from 2005 to 2006. During the Reagan administration, Brady was assistant secretary of commerce for the Federal Trade Commission.

Deputy Staff Director John Cuaderes was also a senior policy adviser until this month. Prior to joining the committee’s office, he was a staff director for the Subcommittee on Federalism and the Census. The Oklahoma native has 23 years of experience working on policy and met his wife on the Hill in 1988, when she was also a staffer.

Charles Phillips is moving up from senior to chief counsel and will be working on the legislative and policy agendas for the committee. Before coming to this office, he spent time as a public policy attorney at a Washington firm and was a special counsel on the House Select Committee on Hurricane Katrina.

Send news of hires and promotions on Capitol Hill to climbers@rollcall.com.