Hill Climbers: A Passion for Education Led Teacher From Middle School to Fattah’s Office

Posted March 7, 2013 at 4:49pm

Liz King is a staffer with a laser beam focus on education policy.

King, who was recently promoted to legislative director for Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., has worked for the congressman for almost eight years. But her route to Washington didn’t involve any of the typical paths. There were no internships to prepare her for life on Capitol Hill, and she didn’t make the move from a campaign to a congressional office.

Instead, the middle-school teacher from the Chicago area, who had been working with Teach for America in south Philadelphia, decided she wanted to have a broader effect on federal policy and called her congressman’s office looking for a job.

“I called the office and asked if they had any openings,” she said. “They asked if I knew anything about education, and I said I was a Philly public school teacher, and that was sort of the beginning of it.”

That call eventually landed her a position as a legislative assistant. But it was her own students above all else that inspired her to come to Washington to work for change.

“I was very impressed by how resilient they were, and in spite of all of the obstacles they were facing and the level of systemic oppression that surrounded them, that they were very optimistic about learning,” she said. “They wanted to know stuff, and they wanted to be smart.”

As the daughter of an immigrant from London, King grew up hearing a lot about immigration policy. Conversations about “green cards and deportation” were common around her kitchen table, and some current attitudes toward the subject are inconceivable to her.

“Rather than seeing immigration as this amazing opportunity to bring in all this great thinking from all over the world, you’ve got this protectionist attitude that sort of says, like, we’ve got all the ideas we need, and we don’t need new people and new ideas,” she said.

Most days, King’s schedule is filled with meetings with constituents from Fattah’s district.

“Ninety-five percent of the meetings I take, people are asking us to do something we already do, or asking us to support something we already support, which makes my life easy,” she joked.

For someone accustomed to the instant gratification of teaching a child something new, the slow pace of change on Capitol Hill is a difficult thing to get used to.

“You teach them something and then they know it, and there’s immediate satisfaction and there’s immediate change and immediate improvement and immediate opportunity — and that is not the case around here.”

But King has found a rather interesting way to alleviate some of the frustration of working in Washington.

“I wired a lighting circuit over the weekend, and so you connect the wires, you connect the switches and then you turn the switch on, and the light comes on — and it’s reliable and predictable and relatively efficient.”

Predictable and efficient are not adjectives Capitol Hill staffers regularly associate with their jobs, and certainly, there’s not a lot of immediate gratification to be found in the chambers of Congress.

King describes her boss as “very nerdy” and sheds some light on a morning office routine that Fattah’s staffers have come to know and love — when they are successful, that is. The goal of the appropriately named “Stump the Staffer” is to know more than the congressman does in the morning.

“Sometimes you are successful, and sometimes you are not so successful,” King said.

But apart from the occasional hiccup during “Stump the Staffer,” King finds herself almost perfectly ideologically aligned with her boss — a major motivating factor while doing her job and something not every staffer is lucky enough to find.

“I‘ve watched a lot of very good people come here and get very discouraged and flee,” she said.

King also takes issue with the assumption that Washington is as corrupt and dark as many people believe it to be.

“This place is not as shady as people think it is. There’s stuff that’s not OK; there are times when members and staff don’t approach the responsibility they have with the seriousness it deserves.” But, by and large, King said, she is impressed with how committed both members and staff are to doing the work they came to Washington to do.

And even those King vehemently disagrees with aren’t to be disrespected in Fattah’s office. They are, she said, “sincere and convicted in their incorrect thought.”

It’s that approach that has helped make King a successful and valued staffer. “Humility is a very difficult thing to retain in this world of egocentric Hill staff and egotistical politicians,” but at the end of the day, she said, it’s good to remind yourself that you’re an employee of the taxpayer.

That, too, is why she’s surprised by how much of a gaping chasm some constituents feel between themselves and Capitol Hill, something she wishes would change.

“It’s funny when people call the office and they’re clearly very daunted by the prospect of talking to someone in a congressional office and, like, people will always be nice to you, regardless of what you say, even crazy people who call — we’re nice to them!” she said.

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