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Top Staff Exodus Leads to Brain Drain

Veteran Democratic Aides Tire of 24-7 Grind

For many top Democratic communicators this year, it was time to pursue other career options — ones that don’t revolve around a 24-hour news cycle. 

The past few months have seen a steady stream of high-level staffers who announced they were leaving the Hill for the private sector, where the daily stresses of campaigning and legislating are at arm’s length. 

Those who have headed to the exits since the November elections include veteran Hill aide Jim Manley, who most recently served as senior communications adviser to Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); Rodell Mollineau, staff director of Reid’s communications “war room”; Regan Lachapelle, deputy communications director for the war room; Joe Shoemaker, communications director for Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.); and Brendan Daly, communications director for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). 

Reid’s office also has made some changes higher up. Gary Myrick, former chief of staff for the leader, was moved to the position of secretary for the majority — a floor operations job in which he will essentially act as the party’s personal parliamentarian. The job is an important one, but it does not put him at the center of the decision-making process like new Chief of Staff David Krone.

Manley acknowledged that the mass exodus could be tough on the caucus initially, but he expressed complete confidence in the new team to rise to the challenge and bring new approaches to the party’s public relations campaign. 

“There’s no denying that there may be a serious brain drain,” Manley said in an interview last week. “But the folks that are coming in are very good at what they do, and they can be expected to bring a lot of fresh ideas to the table.”

Penny Lee, president of Venn Strategies and a former top Reid adviser, said there is a “natural evolution of Hill staff” that usually follows any campaign season. But she said the past several years were particularly brutal for press staff due to the “unprecedented” amount of legislative work that went through the Senate.

“In the press shop, it’s been a very long four years with some very tough, grueling hours,” she said. 

Lee said while those who have left are “skilled individuals,” seasoned veterans, such as Reid’s new spokesman, Jon Summers, and a host of imports from the staff of Democratic Policy and Communications Center Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) will make sure the caucus does not miss a beat. 

Still, many current aides predicted a rocky transition period for the new DPCC as veteran press aides like Summers and new Democratic caucus spokesman Brian Fallon become accustomed to a higher-intensity playing field.

Whether the staffers stayed or left, many of Reid’s communications positions were likely to be altered anyway when he decided to merge his war room operation with the Democratic Policy Committee. Reid tapped Schumer to take over the new DPCC, with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) serving as vice chairwoman.

One former Democratic chief of staff also attributed the mass departures to the increased pressure on staff and the increased partisan rhetoric. 

“There are some different pressures on staff these days,” the former aide said. “It’s been a lot more difficult. It’s easy to get burnt out right now.” 

But the former aide said it is not unusual for staff members to plan their departures in advance and depart as soon as they finish seeing their boss or their party through an election cycle. 

Manley said his own departure is both a welcome change and a sad occasion for him. A 20-year Capitol Hill veteran, Manley attributed many of the staff departures to fatigue from the pace of the 111th Congress as well as the increased pace of the news cycle.

“To a degree, folks are just plum tired,” Manley said. “The 24-7 news cycle kicked in about six or seven years ago, and since then, all of us have been on that treadmill trying to juggle a myriad of responsibilities.” 

Daly, a longtime aide to Pelosi, agreed that the nonstop Internet- and cable-driven news cycle also contributed to his decision to leave at the end of the 111th Congress.

“For me, it was time to work somewhere with more regular hours, and I just wanted to try something new,” Daly said, conceding that the 24-hour news cycle contributed to his decision to leave.

Daly announced in December he was leaving the Hill to become an executive vice president and national director for public affairs for Ogilvy Washington, a public relations firm. 

Shoemaker added family obligations to the list of things he wants to focus on as he prepares to enter the private sector again.

“The pace of the news cycle increases every year, and the demands on your time as a press secretary increase to accommodate that,” Shoemaker said. “It takes a toll not just on you but on your family as well. It would be nice to see more than the last inning of my son’s Little League game or any of my daughter’s gymnastic recitals without a BlackBerry or cell phone clutched in my hand.”

But Mollineau noted that once you have been a trusted adviser to a Member, you can never truly remove yourself from their orbit, nor do many staffers want to.

“I’ve left the Senate before but have always felt a strong sense of loyalty to my former bosses here and still continue to do what I can to help them,” Mollineau said. “I don’t think that changes, regardless of where I am. I’ll be working for these guys one way or the other for some time. It’s like the Hotel California. You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

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