The cafeteria in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building is an unlikely setting for a high-powered job search. Fluorescent lights cast an unflattering glow, the oily scent of fast food fills the air and laughter from tables of pimply Congressional pages wearing polyester jackets makes conversation difficult.
But the Longworth Cafeteria has become the epicenter of hobnobbing for out-of-work (or soon to be jobless) Democratic staffers.
“It’s the spot for networking,” says Jonathan Lipman, communications director for Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), who was defeated in November. Lipman is one of the luckier of his cohorts. He recently landed a job with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H).
“You actually have to switch to water every now and then, or else, by the time you’re on your fourth coffee, you’re trying to tell people how cool you are under pressure,” he says, mimicking an overcaffeinated shake.
One former high-ranking Democratic staffer who is mounting an intense job hunt describes a recent morning in the cafeteria: “I had a coffee from 9:30 to 10, then just ran into people I knew and chatted with them until my next coffee at 11. Then I ran into a few more people and talked until I had to leave for lunch.”
That’s a typical day for the new class of job searchers. Mornings are a parade of coffees. Afternoons are for lunches with old colleagues and contacts, and evenings bring the happy hours. You always have crisp copies of your résumé tucked in your bag. And you never leave the house in sweats. After all, you might run into your next boss in the produce aisle of the grocery store.
The 24-hour hustle for a job is a must, with the odds of finding another Hill job slim: Sixty-plus Democrats were knocked off Congressional rolls, which, combined with trimmed committee staff, translates into hundreds of unemployed, qualified workers all on the chase.
Although it is typical for Republicans and Democrats alike to pull together to find jobs for staffers laid off after elections, this year is different for Democrats. The sheer number of ousted staffers — and the collective sting of the midterms, in which Democrats lost the House majority and saw their numbers dwindle in the Senate — seems to have inspired Democrats around town to mount a particularly enthusiastic effort to help their “fallen” comrades.
Liz Jurinka and Meredith Swan, Bean’s legislative assistant and executive assistant/scheduler, respectively, recently launched a networking group for out-of-work staffers, called the Losers Are Winners Association/List Serve/Drinking Club, that is part joke, part public service.
To gain admittance to the group’s inaugural happy hour, held before Thanksgiving at the Capitol Hill bar Molly Malone’s, staffers had to send a copy of their résumé to the listserv. The event featured dramatic readings of select résumés.
The gathering, they say, was less an opportunity to wallow and more of a chance for friends to reconnect, share battle stories from the campaign trail and look to the future — whatever it might hold.
And last week, the chiefs of staff for three Democratic Members of Congress from Connecticut who survived their re-elections hosted an event for fellow chiefs searching for jobs. About 20 chiefs of staff for defeated Democrats gathered for networking and a panel discussion on job-searching tips.
Jason Gross from Rep. Joe Courtney’s office, Jason Cole from Rep. Jim Himes’ office and Francis Creighton from Rep. Christopher Murphy’s office planned the program after watching colleagues lose jobs and realizing it could have happened to any of them.
“The difference was a thin line between those who lost and those who won, so there’s a sense of connection and a responsibility to help,” Gross says.
Many top staffers weren’t prepared for their bosses’ losses, he says. Staffers work so hard for campaigns, even those that appear doomed, because they think miracles are always possible. To be a chief of staff is to be a believer, Gross says.
“You’re denied that reality,” he says. “Intellectually, it’s not a shock, but emotionally it is.”
David Thomas, a former Hill staffer who is now a lobbyist with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, has taken his share of meetings in Longworth recently, trying to connect staffers with opportunities that he has heard of on and off the Hill. Mostly, though, his role is part cheerleader, part sounding board.
“We’ve all been there, and it’s not fun,” he says. “Democrats downtown or who still have jobs just want to help. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together. … A lot of this was a result of things beyond their control.”
Ivan Adler, who specializes in filling public affairs jobs for the executive search firm McCormick Group, notes that staffers’ job hunts happily coincide with the holiday season, which, in Washington, means there’s an open bar every night.
“People are networking like crazy,” he says. “But the timing actually works out quite well. We are coming up on the season of parties, and there’s no better way to solidify a relationship than through face-to-face interaction.”
But the party season won’t last forever — and neither will staffers’ benefits. Many are facing a new year with no paycheck. Federal child-care eligibility expires 60 days after a parent leaves the government.
Despite the grim situation, many staffers facing unemployment are optimistic about their prospects. Stories of happy landings are passed around like talismans.
Because Democrats still control the White House and the Senate, Gross says, “there is a market for their expertise.”
And Jurinka thinks a good attitude is the key to surviving. “You have to believe that good staffers will land good jobs,” she says.