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Hill Climbers: Familiar Faces Form Critz Team

Small reminders of the late Rep. John Murtha are scattered throughout his successor’s office, from Murtha’s National Guard Bureau award planted on a desk to the dedicated staff whose total time working for the Pennsylvania Democrat adds up to more than 35 years.

[IMGCAP(1)]”Congressman Murtha was such a foundation here on the Hill,” said Jaynelle Stevens, legislative correspondent for Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.). “But we’re beginning to build a new foundation here with Congressman Critz.”

Stevens, like the other staffers in the office, started working on May 21 after Critz won the special election to fill Murtha’s seat. In fact, after Murtha passed away in February because of complications from surgery, most of his staff members stayed on until Critz took over.

“It’s like we’re all kind of learning together,” Stevens said.

The Pennsylvania native’s first Hill experience sprouted from a summer internship with Murtha, which led her to campaign throughout the school year at Seton Hill University. The day after her graduation in May 2008, she started as staff assistant and has been working in D.C. ever since.

Now the 24-year-old is responsible for a string of legislative issues, including education, immigration and opposing abortion rights (which is a “big one” in the district). Although she never pictured herself moving away from her home state, she envisions staying on the Hill and on her House Softball League team, the Pennsylvania Keystoners.

Another staffer who was shuffled into a new position under Critz is Legislative Director Noel Holmes, who previously served as associate staff on the Appropriations Committee. Holmes, a Northern Virginia native, had a Hill homecoming when she arrived in Murtha’s office in 2007 after taking a 13-year hiatus to raise her children.

“I didn’t know if I would be back in D.C.,” Holmes said. “But I knew this was the only job I ever really wanted.”

In the past, Holmes worked with Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Texas) and Critz, who was district director for Pennsylvania’s 12th district. Holmes said Critz was often whom she called about certain district programs and policies.

“Most of us worked with him before, so we all knew him as a co-worker,” Holmes said. “He has a leg up because he knows the district so well.”

Staff Assistant Courtney Hruska is also familiar with the district as a Johnstown, Pa., native and a 2008 Juniata College graduate. Hruska began as an intern for Murtha in the summer of 2009 and moved over to staff assistant when a position opened up in October.

Since making the transition to Critz’s office, Hruska has noticed the Congressman is particularly dedicated to making everyone feel at home in the new environment.

“Congressman Critz is probably the nicest person on the staff,” Hruska said, laughing. “The very first day he made sure we got back on the student loan repayment plan.”

Another Johnstown native in Critz’s office is Legislative Assistant Nathan Catanese, who served in the same role under Murtha. Catanese handles a basket of issues, including health care, energy, transportation and foreign policy. The University of Notre Dame alumnus, who has known Critz since the summer of 2006, believes Critz will “carry on the legacy of Congressman Murtha and do good work for the people of western Pennsylvania.”

Murtha was well-known for maintaining a low turnover rate in his office, and 25-year veteran Jane Phipps is a good example of that. She began interning for Murtha when she was 19, after a former Pennsylvania Member wrote her a letter of recommendation. At 44, Phipps has served in every role imaginable for the late Congressman and now works as scheduler and office manager for Critz.

“It’s very fresh and different working for a new Member,” Phipps said. “The other day he moved something on my desk and I said, ‘Hey, you just did that to keep me on my toes!’ and he responded, ‘Mmmhmm!'”

Critz’s chief of staff, 26-year-old Matthew Mazonkey, also filled a hodgepodge of roles under Murtha.

“In Congressman Murtha’s office, you never got to pick what you wanted to do,” Mazonkey said. “One day I walked in and he said, ‘Now you’re going to be doing press,’ and I said, ‘I know nothing about press and my grammar is terrible!'”

But after five years with the late lawmaker, the Lower Burrell, Pa., native excelled in his various press and legislative roles. Mazonkey now finds himself as the youngest chief of staff on the Hill.

“It’s been interesting learning the ropes about what you do with a senior Member versus a freshman Member,” he said.

The University of Pittsburgh graduate earned degrees in political science and international studies. Although he always had an interest in politics, Mazonkey is uncertain whether he still wants to run for office one day. What he does know is that he’s happy with where he is now.

“If I’m having fun doing something, why change it?” Mazonkey said. “And so far I’m still having fun.”

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