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Hill Climbers: Just Like Old Times

When Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-Pa.) selected her staff for her Washington, D.C., and district offices, she decided to keep it in the family — or at least, in the neighborhood.

[IMGCAP(1)]Nearly all of Dahlkemper’s newly installed staffers are friends, neighborhood acquaintances, high school classmates and even constituents.

Kate Regan, for example, lived next door to Dahlkemper before the Congresswoman decided to run for office. Regan, a stay-at-home mom of three and graduate of Alfred University, relocated from Rochester, N.Y., to Pennsylvania. She had never been involved in politics before Dahlkemper asked her to become the volunteer coordinator and office manager on her campaign.

So what made her want to jump into the election fray?

Dahlkemper “has an integrity that would be welcome in Washington, let’s put it that way,” Regan said.

When Dahlkemper defeated Republican Rep. Phil English in November, she asked Regan to stay on as district office manager. Though Regan said she hadn’t expected the campaign work to turn into a full-time job, she decided to accept.

“We had such a blast on the campaign, it was a very attractive offer,” she said.

Regan isn’t the only one who had a great time despite the demands of a House race.

Simone Baer had been raising funds for several Democratic Members and the Blue Dog political action committee while working with D.C.-based Advanced Network Strategies when Dahlkemper asked her to join the campaign. Baer was impressed with the candidate’s personality, which she described as “down to earth, level and focused,” and agreed to help with fundraising.

“I just really loved working on the campaign,” Baer said. “I don’t think many candidates are that much fun to work for.”

[IMGCAP(2)]Baer is now the regional representative in Dahlkemper’s office. Originally from Seattle, she first made her way to the Keystone State to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her degree in political science. Although Baer also worked in the health care industry, pushing legislation at a state level, she’s found herself most focused on the economic crisis since being back in Pennsylvania, traveling around the district and talking with constituents about what can be done to improve the situation for them.

For John Hall, taking a job with Dahlkemper’s staff means not only working in his hometown, but also with a high school classmate. He played football with her husband and even attended the Congresswoman’s wedding. Though he didn’t know Dahlkemper as well as he knew her husband, he was still eager to work as her director of economic development in the district office.

Hall left Erie, Pa., for New York City after high school, attending Columbia University as an undergraduate. He held various business positions over the years before moving back to Pennsylvania. What he saw made him feel he could do some good in his old community.

“When I came back, I saw that it was an area that hadn’t moved forward” economically, he said. “If there was a way I could get involved, I wanted to do it.”

Anne Rahner and Dahlkemper were also high school acquaintances, but somehow managed to keep bumping into one another for years after graduation. Both had moved away from Erie, but ran into one another when they came back to town. And then their 20-year-old daughters became good friends. Finally, Dahlkemper asked Rahner to work on her campaign, which led to a permanent position in the district office.

Prior to going to work for her Congresswoman and longtime friend, Rahner worked with the Erie Community Foundation Women’s Fund.

Amy Cuzzola-Kern did not attend high school with Dahlkemper, nor were they next-door neighbors. But Cuzzola-Kern was impressed at their first meeting, eight years ago.

They worked together when Cuzzola-Kern was vice president of the Erie Community Foundation, and Dahlkemper was establishing the Lake Erie Arboretum at Frontier Park, a local nonprofit.

Cuzzola-Kern had taken some time off work to be with her children, but right around the elections she was already thinking about heading back to work. It was a situation that Cuzzola-Kern described as “right place, right time.”

“After she won the election and I knew she’d be looking for district staff, I sent my résumé,” she said.

Dahlkemper hired her former colleague to be director of health, human services and education. As such, Cuzzola-Kern will be doing outreach in the district and facilitating communication between her boss and various federal agencies.

Cuzzola-Kern has a Ph.D. in social welfare policy from the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and a master’s degree in public and international affairs from the University of Pittsburgh.

Chief of Staff Tina Mengine keeps the staff running for Dahlkemper in both the district and Washington offices.

Mengine had some chief experience when she signed on with Dahlkemper, having spent four years as chief of staff in the Erie mayor’s office. In 2006, she left that position to start Bluestocking, a political and economic development company.

She had worked on several campaigns before being approached by Dahlkemper, but after the two women met for lunch, Mengine said she was impressed by the candidate’s genuine nature. “Once in a while, you get a candidate who’s really doing it for the right reasons,” Mengine said.

Until mid-January, Ivana Alexander was senior legislative assistant to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). She spent a couple of weeks volunteering on Dahlkemper’s campaign, and when the Congresswoman was elected, Alexander decided the time was right to “grow professionally.”

“Having spent time on her campaign, I came to believe in her vision for leaving our country a better place for future generations,” Alexander said. “She was a breath of fresh air politically.”

As deputy chief of staff and legislative director, Alexander is responsible for managing the office’s legislative agenda and the legislative team. It’s a lot of work, but she also makes time for another passion — theater.

Since making her D.C.-area stage debut in a production of “Godspell” at the Act III Theatre Company in Arlington, Va., Alexander has been appearing in shows whenever the Congressional schedule allows. It is like having two full-time jobs, she said, but added that it’s nice to have that creative outlet in addition to her professional life.

“I love them both,” she said. “Now that I’ve started doing shows, I can’t see myself ever not doing shows.” And while she doesn’t have any plans to leave the District for Broadway anytime soon, it’s always a possibility. “I’ll never give [that dream] up until they cart me out,” she said, but noted that “the older you get, the fewer roles there are available to you.”

Mengine and Alexander are joined in Washington by legislative correspondent Benjamin Storms. He had been a staff assistant to Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley (D) for a year, but wanted to work for a Member from his home state (Storms is from Mancungie, Pa.).

Last summer, he began watching the Pennsylvania House races, and, realizing that “my district was not winnable for the Dems,” set his sights on a job with Dahlkemper.

Storms will likely always be grateful to Braley for giving him his first job in Washington. Storms first moved to D.C. at the suggestion of his college roommate, whose grandfather lives here and worked as a lobbyist. The friends knew they had a place to stay and began sending out their résumés. Storms’ was forwarded to Braley and before long, he was employed.

As for his new boss, Storms has nothing but praise. She “is very open to everyone’s ideas,” he said. “She didn’t come into this as a career politician.”

Steve Soltesz’s résumé isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a legislative correspondent. The 2006 graduate of the international development master’s program at the University of Pittsburgh has been an analyst, a project manager, an English teacher and a carpenter.

Soltesz explained his eclectic background by saying, “I like to learn new things, and I’ve been keeping up with the politics of our country, the economic situation.”

Like so many others, he felt the change in administration made it the right time to get into the political scene. “This is a watershed moment in U.S. history,” Soltesz said. “There’s no better time to take part in a process that could change millions of American lives for the better.”

To do his part for the effort, Soltesz wrote Dahlkemper — his hometown Representative — and she offered him a job.

Another of Dahlkemper’s constituents is her staff assistant. Seán Gallagher, from Sharon, Pa., and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, has been in D.C. for two years, but this is his first Congressional job. He interned with the Congressional Award Foundation two years ago, and worked for a campaign technology firm after that.

Gallagher said he has always had an affection for Washington and an interest in politics. So when Jan. 6, his first day as a Congressional staffer, came, the moment was not lost on him.

“I started thinking about people who have walked those same steps, same halls, like Martin Luther King and JFK and think, ‘Who am I to follow in these people’s footsteps?’” he said. “Hopefully I can leave some small mark that’s worthy of their legacy.”

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