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Hill Climbers: Chief of Staff Says He’s in It for the Long Haul

In an atmosphere where turnover is high and jobs are on the line at the end of every election cycle, Ryan Thompson is something of a rarity.

He’s worked for one Member, Rep. Joe Barton, for nine years, spanning nearly his entire career.

And after seeing the Texas Republican through several re-election campaigns, the loss of the House majority in 2006, the BP oil spill apology last summer and the regaining of the majority back in November, one thing’s for sure: This newly promoted chief of staff, who calls his boss “Joe,” is in it for the long haul.

Growing up, the 36-year-old, soft-spoken Austin native planned to be a Marine. After a stint in high school football (which was never going to lead to the college football or the NFL path, he said with a laugh), Thompson joined the Marine Corps. He spent the next four years in the infantry, stationed in Camp Pendleton in California and Okinawa, Japan. It was a quiet time for the Marines from 1993 to 1997, so he was never deployed.

Thompson then attended Texas A&M University in College Station, majoring in history and minoring in political science, geography and economics. At first, the goal was to graduate and get his secondary education certification so he could teach high school classes and coach football.

But, like many other college students, he changed his mind. Looking back, he can’t pinpoint the exact moment when it happened. It was something about the art of political science, the way politics intersects with people’s daily lives, that caught his eye.

Another political junkie was born.

He didn’t think of himself as a policy wonk, but he figured he’d try to get to the heart of the world by moving to Washington, D.C., and trying to land a job on Capitol Hill. His attempts proved unsuccessful at first, with everyone telling him he needed more experience.

Then he went to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“I offered to work for free and do anything to get my foot in the door — just as along as I have a email,” he said. “They didn’t turn down free labor.”

His persistence paid off. Within weeks, the committee offered Thompson a full-time clerk position on the Subcommittee  on Oversight and Investigations, just before 9/11.

While he enjoyed his time with the committee, he knew that he wanted to end up working for a member of the Texas delegation. He applied for a legislative clerk job in Barton’s office, and he didn’t get it.

But the Congressman took notice of Thompson and offered him a job back in his district as the political director.

And just like that, Thompson was in.

The past nine years have been a roller coaster as Thompson has slowly moved up the ranks. He was brought up to D.C. when Barton became chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And he was in the room the day Barton realized he was having a heart attack in 2005. (“It was one of the most amazing and scary days of doing the job.”)

He made it through the staff cuts after the Republicans lost the House majority in 2006.

And even when Barton weathered criticism for apologizing to BP after the 2010 oil spill, Thompson pushed on: “Sometimes when bad things happen, you don’t have a friend in the world and not even your dog will talk to you. You rely on [Barton’s] fortitude, his resilience. … It was tough, but we got through it.”

Getting past the lows is what leads to the highs. Thompson describes the GOP winning back the House majority as one of the better times in his career. As the new chief of staff, he has no plans for leaving the Hill anytime soon.

“I’m happy to be here and I absolutely love what I do,” he said. “I’ll stay with the Congressman for as long as he wants me.”

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