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Hill Climbers: This Ortiz Staffer Preaches What He Practices

Dave Helfert, adjunct professor and Hill veteran, preaches what he practices. In a typical classroom for Helfert, however, he might already be preaching to the choir; 15 of his former students have been fellow Congressional staffers.

“Having colleagues as students keeps you on your toes,” said Helfert, who was recently hired as legislative director for Rep. Solomon Ortiz. “I can’t lie too much because they know!”

Helfert, born in Austin, Texas, started working for the Texas Democrat on May 24, but he plans to continue teaching courses at American University and Johns Hopkins University through the summer. Helfert said, “Teaching stretches me, and all of that has made me better here.”

His experience in Washington includes six years as a public affairs director in the Clinton administration, two years as communications director for Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), and most recently, four years as communications director for Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii).

Under Abercrombie, Helfert was responsible for writing press releases, opinion pieces and letters to the editor. He was also able to investigate issues that he thought the Congressman should be involved with, such as expanding credit protection to small businesses.

“My job is to tell a story,” Helfert said. “If I can get people to pay attention by telling them why they should care and what difference it makes in their life, then I’ve done my job.”

As legislative director for Ortiz, Helfert will help the Congressman establish a legislative agenda by prioritizing the issues that matter to the 27th district. He recognizes that not everything can be done at the same time, so he often asks the question: “What are the most important pieces we can work on right now?” Helfert plans to integrate legislation, communication and scheduling in order to accomplish these job duties.

The small jump from communications to legislation was as comfortable as the transition from Abercrombie to Ortiz, who sat next to each other on the House Armed Services Committee and its Subcommittee on Readiness. Helfert, who has known Ortiz for many years and is familiar with his district, said the bottom line with Ortiz is simple: “Get things done.”

Helfert has been in Washington since 1994 and has seen major changes in the way media are used to interact with Congress. When he first came to the Hill, the majority of Congressional offices relied on snail mail for information and only used the Internet for storage space.

The new staffer, who graduated from the University of Texas with a journalism degree and later received a master’s degree in public communication from American University, draws on his reporting and writing experiences to guide him through the city’s political entanglements.

“Being on the creative side of developing messages with words gives you a sense of what works and what moves people to pay attention,” said Helfert, who has written for almost 220 political campaigns.

Likewise, Helfert culls from his experience in political communication to aid him in his teaching methods: As a professor he implements a practical approach, much like his strategy as legislative director. In the classes he teaches in public affairs communication and press secretary practice, Helfert said that one of his favorite class exercises is to make students write a 750-word opinion piece but then cut it down to 600 words because “that’s the kind of thing we run into all the time.”

Although he will be teaching a course twice a week this summer at AU, his career concentration remains in communication and legislation on the Hill.

“Most people start their careers here, and I couldn’t imagine a more incredible place to start,” Helfert said. “But I came to it at the other end of my career, and I’m having a ball.”

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