It’s been seven years since Rich Zipperer worked for longtime Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner on Capitol Hill, but the pair remain close.
Zipperer was legislative director for Sensenbrenner for eight years before leaving in 2006 to serve in the Wisconsin Assembly and later the Wisconsin Senate, and he counts Sensenbrenner as both a professional mentor and a personal friend.
Now deputy chief of staff to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Zipperer says Sensenbrenner’s mentorship, as well as the loyal group of alumni who have worked in his office, have helped him achieve his political aspirations.
“When I ran for office and would go around and meet people, I’d meet with people who had worked for the congressman in the past … and had great stories to tell of their time there,” Zipperer said.
His experience is not unique.
That’s because when Sensenbrenner is looking to hire — from the lowest level staff assistant to trusted advisers — he’s searching for more than just a colleague. The 18-term Wisconsin Republican wants a staff that works hard and owns the domain they plan to work in, but more than that, he wants people who will continue the legacy of the Sensenbrenner “staff family” that has been growing since he was first elected in 1978.
From mayors of Wisconsin towns to influential members of the Wisconsin Republican Party, hundreds of people have passed through Sensenbrenner’s office over his more than 36-year career, and many of those staffers still keep in touch with Sensenbrenner and his current aides.
Sensenbrenner takes pride in mentoring his staff and the pay-it-forward mentality of helping lift those who serve him toward their professional goals, which not only gives him personal joy, but helps better serve his constituents with a network of former staffers embedded in Wisconsin businesses, departments and associations that can help solve their problems.
“I have considered them family and friends,” Sensenbrenner said of those who have worked for him. “I wanted to keep in touch with them after they [move on]. That’s part of the secret,” he said of why the network of alumni is so strong.
There’s Tim Sheehy, who landed an internship with Sensenbrenner in the summer of 1979 and lived in the representative’s Wisconsin home, spending his days driving the congressman around his district to meet with constituents.
He later landed a job in Sensenbrenner’s Washington, D.C., office, and lived in the basement of Sensenbrenner’s home in the District, where he continued to forge a relationship with the congressman and made friends he’s still close to today.
“I always take a call from somebody that says, ‘Hey, I worked for Jim Sensenbrenner,’” said Sheehy, who now serves as president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. “The strength of the alumni network approaches the strength of the alumni network at some colleges.”
Patty Reimann, who worked in the congressman’s district office for 15 years before leaving in 1996 to take care of her family, said she stays involved with the Sensenbrenner staff family, helping raise money for his campaigns and keeping in touch with current staffers whom she’s known for years.
“Once you’re a Sensenbrenner staffer, you’re always in the fold,” Reimann said.
She said the alumni network — which spreads across Wisconsin and Washington, D.C. — is always available for current staffers seeking advice on casework, which helps the office run smoother.
“You always have someone to turn to, to lean on to ask a question,” Reimann said. “Or if you’re looking for someone to remember a fun story about the office, someone is there.”
Bart Forsyth, Sensenbrenner’s current chief of staff, said the alumni network is invaluable to those who currently work in the lawmaker’s office. He said he keeps in touch with former staffers both in a friendly way and as a source for professional advice.
“There’s no question that it’s an asset — institutional memory, connections to countless new people, and sometimes just as sounding boards for new ideas,” Forsyth said. “I think the long tenure of Sensenbrenner staffers and the continued loyalty post-employment stems from the fact that he’s a good boss. He’s an effective member of Congress and he has a lot of respect for the people who work for him. As a result, we feel like we’re making a difference.”