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Hill Climbers: Deutch Staffers Start to Settle In

There’s a bright rainbow sign hanging from the front room of Rayburn 2241 that reads “Congratulations Congressman Deutch.” But after that bright welcome, there’s just a phone and a computer. The walls are bare.

[IMGCAP(1)]Welcome to the office of Capitol Hill’s newest Member, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), who was sworn in April 15. (He replaced former Rep. Robert Wexler, who stepped down in January to head a Middle East think tank.)

For many in the freshman’s staff, the space is familiar: Many Wexler staffers came over with the House’s newest addition. But the path from Wexler’s resignation announcement in October to Deutch’s special election victory on April 13 was not an easy one.

“Rep. Wexler’s resignation was a bit of a shock to me,” said Deutch Communications Director Ashley Mushnick, 25, who was Wexler’s press secretary. “I did a couple weeks of soul searching about whether or not I’d go on the [Deutch] campaign. I knew Ted from his work in the Florida state Senate, and he seemed like a great guy.”

So the Voorhees, N.J., native made the plunge from Congress to South Florida for the campaign, an adventure that would last six months.

Chris Fisher is another Wexler alumnus who joined Deutch on the campaign trail. Fisher, 25, had been a Wexler legislative fellow. While campaigning in the Sunshine State, the Celina, Texas, native worked as the campaign’s call time manager. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Miami.

A third Wexler veteran is Joshua Lipman, who now works as Deutch’s legislative assistant/counsel. Unlike many of his colleagues, Lipman, 34, stayed behind in Washington to help wind down his former boss’s office.

Capitol Hill is Lipman’s second career. The Miami native is a 1998 graduate of Colorado College and a 2002 graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law. After earning his law degree, Lipman spent five years as a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, where he represented prisoners throughout the South. After working across Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi for several years, he moved to Washington, D.C., for the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Project.

But being in D.C. aroused Lipman’s long-held tie to politics. “In high school, I worked on the 1992 Tom Harkin presidential campaign. They were trying to get high school students [who were] 18 years old to come out and vote,” he said.

Not everyone on the Deutch staff is a Capitol Hill veteran, though. Even though Casey Kustin’s first Congressional job comes as Deutch’s senior adviser, she led Deutch to victory as campaign manager. Kustin, 24, had also spent three years with in the Florida state Senate as a legislative assistant.

[IMGCAP(2)]Kustin said the transition from campaign life to a Congressional office was a whirlwind. “We finished the campaign, we got on a plane the next day [and] came up here for swearing-in,” she said. “I went back home for a weekend, packed up my life, got in the car, drove up here and came north a few days later into a completely empty apartment with nothing but a bed I had delivered.”

Kustin is a 2006 graduate of the University of Florida and just began a part-time pursuit of a degree at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management.

Joining Kustin as a new addition to Capitol Hill is Nicholas Hart, staff assistant. Hart’s parents hail from Deutch’s 19th district, which provided him with the necessary hook to Deutch. “I decided to intern for the Congressman and eventually was lucky enough to become a staff member,” he said.

The 20-year-old staffer is a Juilliard-trained bassist and a 2009 graduate of the University of Cincinnati. “When I was in high school, I wanted to be a musician and I was going to Juilliard. I made a deal with my parents that if I graduated early from high school, I could go off and study music in college. So I graduated early, went to college, and two years into it I didn’t want to do it for a living anymore.”

All the staffers find common ground in telling funny transition stories.

“I had to walk Ted’s 25 closest family members back from the Capitol after he got sworn in,” Hart said. “Our chief of staff told me to go do it myself, and I had no idea where I was going. It was my first day in D.C. I was just walking around trying to make believe I knew where I was going and making up things saying, ‘Oh look, here’s that building.'”

Just last week, Deutch landed his committee assignments on the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees, both of which Wexler sat on. Nevertheless personality-wise, the staffers note differences between the two men.

Mushnick added that Deutch is “definitely wonkier than Wexler. Robert was so good at messaging and getting on the talk shows and really pushing the Democratic agenda, and I have no doubt that Ted is going to make a foray into that as well, but Ted is also very interested in the nitty-gritty of legislation.”

Meanwhile, the office decorations are still a work in progress. The 112th Congress will bring an office change, so Deutch staffers don’t seem to be in a huge rush. With just three weeks into the lawmaker’s legislative run, all that sits on an office coffee table is a pop-up book of the beaches of Delray Beach, Fla.

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