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Hill Climbers: Aide’s Career Follows Revolving-Door Path

Joshua Shields knows the grass always seems greener on the other side, but that hasn’t stopped him from bouncing between campaign trails and Capitol Hill for the past seven years.

“I’m one of those tortured souls that go back and forth between campaigns and official work,” Shields said. “When I’m in D.C., I miss the campaign trail. When I’m on the campaign trail, I miss D.C.”

The 31-year-old has been back on the Hill since Jan. 3. He is working as communications director for freshman Rep. Kristi Noem after managing her general election. But it wasn’t his first encounter with the South Dakota Republican; for the first half of 2010, he ran her primary opponent’s campaign.

Shields, a native of the Mount Rushmore State, said it might seem like a strange concept to work for a former opponent, but after a “civil primary election,” he was sure that his work on the campaign trail against Noem gave him the necessary edge to help secure her a win in November.

“It gave me a little bit of an advantage because I thought about her like an opponent,” he said. “It’s an important lens to view your own campaign’s strengths and weaknesses.”

The seasoned Hill veteran gained most of his experience in the Senate. In 2009, he worked for Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) as a legislative assistant, and before that, he worked for the Senate campaign of former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R-Colo.).

But his first foray into politics was with then-Rep. John Thune. He started as an intern for the South Dakota Republican in the summer of 2001. After graduating from Gordon College in 2002, he began working as a research assistant for Thune’s Senate campaign.

He came back to the Hill in 2003 to work for Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), first as a press assistant and then as a deputy press secretary. But it wasn’t long before the campaign trail started calling his name. By 2004 he was back campaigning for Thune, who was elected Senator that year.

Shields knew he would have a long career in government when he wrote his first speech for Thune as an intern. The chief of staff said the speech was really good and asked whether it was taken from the Internet.

“I just laughed and said, ‘No, I wrote it,’” Shields said. “It was funny, and I took it as a compliment.”

Even with seven years of experience under his belt, Shields has never worked for a freshman Member of Congress. His first tasks for Noem included hanging up pictures and stocking the office with South Dakota beef jerky for the swearing-in reception, which 38 of the Congresswoman’s family members attended.

Shields said he admires Noem’s ability to juggle a big family — she has three kids and a husband back in South Dakota — and still dedicate herself to Congress. But one bonus of the extended family is an extra energy boost at events.

“Any time we needed a crew for a campaign or something, we immediately had 30 people,” Shields said. “It was like a built-in campaign crowd.”

He said he has been inspired by his hardworking boss to excel in his own duties as communications director, which include writing speeches and managing social media.

But even though he has a self-professed addiction to the campaign trail, Shields is remaining focused on this job, at least for now.

“Campaigns are high-risk, high-reward ventures. Some people thrive under that kind of intensity,” he said. “But one of the best things about working on the Hill is that no two days are the same. Every day is an adventure.”

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