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Hill Climbers: Berman Staffer Bridges Message, Constituents

It’s hard enough to keep tabs on the political playing field. It can be even harder for someone who can’t hear what a canvasser might have to say when he knocks on his door in the middle of a campaign. 

Staffer Gil Landau, who is fluent in American Sign Language and grew up with two deaf parents, may have been one of the few people to bridge this gap when he was deputy finance director for the campaign of Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.)

“We had knocked on someone’s door, and they signed to us that they were deaf and tried to send us away. But I started signing back to them, and we ending up talking for 15 minutes,” Landau said. “He’s probably gotten his door knocked on a dozen times, but no one’s ever been able to explain their campaign to him before. It was a really cool experience.”

The 25-year-old began working as a legislative correspondent for Rep. Howard Berman this September, but his gig with the California Democrat wasn’t his first experience in politics. His campaign work with Kagen also led him to the office of Rep. Debbie Halvorson.

During his role as staff assistant with the Illinois Democrat, who was a freshman Member at the time, Landau was not only responsible for getting acclimated to his own new job, but also for making sure everyone else was acclimated.

“I was on the front line of getting everything up and running, and making sure people had parking spots, furniture and working computers,” Landau said. “I had to deal with payroll, benefits, the Architect of the Capitol, basically figure out who does what. There was no institutional knowledge before we came in, but at least now I know who to talk to if I need something.”

The New Jersey native has to operate differently under Berman, who is a 14-term veteran of Capitol Hill. Before, when Landau wrote constituent letters for Halvorson, he would generate a response based on her basic principles. But now, he has to take Berman’s voting history and past positions into consideration.

“Working in a freshman office, everything is a new decision, everything is evaluated without any history,” he said. “Working for my current boss, any decision is done with reflection on what decisions we’ve made in the past, what’s happened and what votes we made.”

Landau majored in political science and minored in religion at Rutgers University, where he graduated in January 2008, but he wasn’t sure which career path he would pursue. He even considered becoming a rabbi, as he was raised in an active Jewish household and learned to read Babylonian Aramaic in high school.

He ultimately chose a career on the Hill, but it wasn’t always the plan. When his partner was admitted to George Washington University Law School, Landau took his last semester as an internship on the presidential campaign of then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in 2008. Landau had planned to go to graduate school afterward, but he enjoyed working so much that he decided to put off school and continue working for Congressional offices.

Although he pursued politics instead of religion, Landau hasn’t abandoned his religious roots. He not only belongs to the Congressional Jewish Staffers Association, but he also serves as the hospitality coordinator for D.C. Minyan, a layman-led Jewish community in Dupont Circle.

Since arriving in Washington in the summer of 2007, Landau’s most memorable Hill moment came from his stint in Halvorson’s office. Even though he was a staff assistant, he proposed an amendment to include veterans in a scholarship bill that awarded money to specific groups. Halvorson not only accepted his drafted amendment but also let the staffer sit next to her on the House floor while she proposed the bill to Congress.

“I was sitting on the floor and there were bright lights, C-SPAN cameras, Members talking and this debate going on right in front of me,” he said. “It was a great experience being there, but it was even more meaningful that I was the lead on this amendment that they were talking about. And it ultimately became a template for the future.” 

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