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Hill Climbers: Common Ground

Andrew Zabel and Erica Anhalt have more in common than you’d think. Both hail from Connecticut, both are 2009 graduates of Dartmouth College, and both are avid winter sports fans. But as of January, the two have even more common ground: They both work as staff assistants for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

[IMGCAP(1)]It would take Capitol Hill for the two staffers to realize all their connections: “We seem to know everyone in common but all this time we didn’t know each other, even though we’re both from Connecticut,— Zabel said. “Especially with Dartmouth, the name game is a very easy one to play.—

Anhalt, 22, is originally from Guilford, Conn., and holds degrees in Russian and government from Dartmouth, which is in Hanover, N.H.

It was the political process that actually prompted Anhalt to learn the intricacies of the Granite State. After hearing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) speak at Dartmouth, Anhalt volunteered to intern with his presidential campaign in fall 2007 and winter 2008.

“He was the one with the most policy the earliest, and I really liked that,— Anhalt said. “I liked all of his ideas. I think if you’re going to be talking about someone’s ideas you better be excited about them.—

Although officially an intern, Anhalt had the responsibilities of a field organizer in north Carroll County. She worked any variety of campaign jobs, from phone-banking to canvassing to working advance for events.

Anhalt said the campaign brought about a newfound respect for New England’s winters: “It would be like 17 degrees below zero and I’d be running from my office to the car and then

from my car to the little house that we lived,— Anhalt said. “I drove through some of the worst blizzards of my life, learned so much and had an amazing time.—

Zabel, 23, hails from Fairfield, Conn. He also studied political science at Dartmouth and graduated with a degree in government in May.

Zabel’s path to politics hardly mirrors that of his fellow staffer. While an undergraduate, he ran a grass-roots student organization called the Big Green Bus. The organization drives a used school bus that runs on waste vegetable oil around the country each summer, making stops at concerts, science museums, wind farms and summer camps to discuss renewable energy.

For Zabel, the bus was unknowingly a good introduction to the political process. “I loved getting out and talking to people,— he said. “It’s not exactly like organizing, but it has that same feel — retail politics — where you’re out there shaking hands, talking to people, pitching them on an idea.—

Even though the road trips were fulfilling for Zabel, he also said they were anything but glamorous, especially when the bus needed fuel.

“We picked up vegetable oil at mom-and-pop greasy spoons across the country,— he said. “It was just kind of a hit-or-miss. You’d pull off the highway and essentially go Dumpster-diving for the best grease. You’d suck a couple hundred gallons out and get really dirty in the process.—

Both staffers said they knew they wanted to enter public service — it was just a matter of getting there. A Hill internship would provide the ticket for both of them.

Zabel researched different Members’ policy ideas before taking a shot at Congress. He eventually settled on Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), for whom he interned last fall.

[IMGCAP(2)]“I sort of picked out folks who could identify as leaders who are on the right committees,— Zabel said. “I was lucky enough that his office got back to me and said ‘yes.’ It was interesting being only one of two non-Washingtonians there.—

Anhalt interned for Shaheen from October to December. To say she was excited to get to stay in the Shaheen office is an understatement.

“It couldn’t have worked out any better,— Anhalt said. “After four years of living in New Hampshire, you sort of feel like you have a little claim to the state.—

Both staffers said Shaheen’s policies also make for a good fit.

“She’s on the Foreign Relations Committee, which I’m really excited about,— Anhalt said. “She’s so passionate about being pro-choice and being socially liberal and those kind of issues are important to me.—

“Senator Shaheen is passionate about getting young people involved in public service and is a political match for me — socially progressive, fiscally responsible,— Zabel wrote in an e-mail.

The personal dynamics of the Shaheen office don’t hurt either.

“Everyone in this office is fantastic,— Anhalt said. “It’s just the nicest, most welcoming, friendliest office.—

For Zabel, it’s the little things that make the office friendly. “The Senator takes time walking in the door to say hi,— he said. “That’s not something all Members do, they just breeze by. Actually taking the time to greet you is pretty good evidence that your Member cares and is down here for the right reasons.—

While both staffers said they’re still learning to acclimate to their new jobs, the future promises a lot of legislative learning. Both said they hope to learn as much about policy as possible but are open eventually to returning to school for graduate studies.

After several months in Washington, both staffers have already scoped out their favorite food spot: U Street. For Zabel, it’s the soul food, and for Anhalt, it’s the Ethiopian.

The Winter Olympics are also sure to have both staffers tuning in. For Zabel, the draw is the U.S. ski team, while for Anhalt it’s figure skating.

Zabel knows a thing or two about skiing. He ski-raced in high school and ski-patrolled in college, and before enrolling in Dartmouth, he took a gap year in Vail, Colo., to work ski lifts.

“Compared to being a lifty, being a staff assistant is like way higher up,— he said.

Although Anhalt is a spectator when it comes to figure skating, she isn’t when it comes to another sport: equestrian riding. She has been riding horses since the age of 5 — focusing on English and country jumper riding — and was a member of the Dartmouth equestrian team.

“I live with a couple of my teammates from Dartmouth,— Anhalt said. “We always reminisce together about not riding. I’m definitely going through equine withdrawal.—

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