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Hill Climber: Ex-Palin Aide Sets Priorities on Hill

Tom Van Flein is a fixer.

A high-powered litigator by trade, Van Flein made a career of settling disputes and getting clients out of hot water. Van Flein represented former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) during the “Troopergate” flap and later as one of her advisers during the 2008 presidential campaign. 

Now on Capitol Hill, where he was recently promoted to chief of staff for Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Van Flein says he has become a prioritizer. He can be on the offensive rather than the defensive, helping set and carry out policy goals with Gosar, rather than merely having to react to events that have already taken place.

“We can decide, and we do decide, what our goals [are] at the beginning of the year, the promises that [are] made to constituents and what we [want] to achieve for them,” Van Flein said.

Van Flein came to Capitol Hill in January 2011 as Gosar’s legislative director and deputy chief of staff. He had met Gosar a few years prior while doing legal work for the American Dental Association, where Gosar served as vice chairman of the ADA’s council on government affairs. 

When Gosar, a first-term Member, was running for Congress in 2010, Van Flein helped with Gosar’s messaging and policy objectives and came to Washington after his victory in the GOP sweep.  

Though his path to a chief of staff position on Capitol Hill wasn’t conventional, Van Flein said his legal experience, especially as Palin’s personal attorney during the 2008 media frenzy and beyond, made him well-prepared to come up with policy goals and the necessary messaging to see those goals carried through.

“We were doing our legal work during the hotly contested campaign, where our legal work was also being used as messaging for political purposes, both pro and con,” Van Flein said of working with Palin. He added, “It helped a lot because it helped focus on singling out the issues that matter versus those that don’t matter, focusing on perception and optics.”

Coming to Capitol Hill and helping create an office for a new Member of Congress from the ground up has been a rewarding experience for Van Flein.

“The best experience has been watching a group of people who never worked at all together from day one, didn’t even know each other, all of us came from different backgrounds and different offices and experiences, and turning it into a team that works,” Van Flein said. “It took a couple of months, but we did it.”

In his new role as chief of staff, Van Flein said he’s excited to help tackle a new set of goals with Gosar and his team, and he offered advice for those seeking to get to the chief of staff level on Capitol Hill.

“I may not have had the standard path to get here because I worked and gained my experience outside the Hill, yet in a political environment, but I think the reason I’m here where I am is hard work, loyalty, discretion, good judgment and honest advice,” Van Flein said.

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