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Aides Aiming for Pins: Staffers Look to Join 1 in 7 Members Who Have Worked on Hill

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The newest member of the House, David Jolly, represents more than an early trophy for the Republicans and a vision of worry for the Democrats this midterm election year. For legions of Hill aides in both parties, he’s also a happy reminder that time as a staffer remains one of the best possible resume builders for those who aspire to someday wear a member’s pin.  

Jolly’s opponents in Florida’s special House election never tired of affixing to him the epithet Beltway lobbyist, and that’s how he’s made a good living since 2007. But before then he spent almost a dozen years on the staff of his predecessor, the late C.W. Bill Young. He rose from legislative aide right out of college to district director and then general counsel when Young chaired the Appropriations Committee.  

At his swearing in last week, Jolly became the 62nd current House member who’s held a paid position as a congressional aide. The same is also true of 14 incumbent senators. In both chambers, that’s one out of seven members.  

And the roster looks likely to grow in the 114th Congress. Three somewhat competitive Senate races have candidates who once worked on the Hill, and former aides are solidly in the hunt in a dozen House contests. Thirty more with staff experience are running what appear to be hopeless federal campaigns at the moment, but some of those could still blossom. (None of these figures includes the dozens of members or 2014 candidates who have been Hill interns.)  

The numbers underscore what may seem intuitively obvious in the Capitol Hill community: The sort of people who dream about becoming “the principal” will gravitate to employment with the elected officials they want to emulate. And those given an opportunity to conclude, from firsthand experience, that the congressional life’s potential benefits outweigh its manifest frustrations may be more likely to take the candidacy plunge.  

Serving as an aide, in other words, is just as obvious a ticket-punching move for a budding career politician as is a judicial clerkship is for someone hoping to end up on the bench. To be sure, bigger shares of the current membership have served in a state legislature (48 percent) and in the military (20 percent). But, at 14 percent, the ranks of ex-aides outnumber almost all other employment categories. Former mayors, physicians and college professors each make up 4 percent of the membership.  

For this year’s crop of onetime Hill rats hoping to step up, one worry is whether they will be more dragged down than propelled by their experience in this intensely anti-incumbent climate. The Washington Post/ABC News poll out last week found just 22 percent “inclined to vote to re-elect” their current representative — a drop of 5 percentage points since January, to the lowest level in the quarter century the poll has been asking that question. And 68 percent said they were “inclined to look around for someone else to vote for,” a record high.  

The current roster of 76 former aides in Congress is 53 percent Republican. In the current crop of viable aspirants there are 12 from the GOP and just three Democrats.  

The candidate with perhaps the best shot is the newest on the list: Ken Buck, a tea party favorite and prosecutor in rural Colorado, who recently switched political places with Rep. Cory Gardner. Buck, who was on the staff of the special congressional panel that investigated the Iran-contra affair in the 1980s, is now favored to win the reliably Republican House seat Gardner is giving up to run against Democratic Sen. Mark Udall. Gardner was legislative director from 2002 to 2005 for GOP Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado.  

The races for the other two are favored to go the other way: Former Republican national chairman Ed Gillespie, the uphill challenger to Democratic incumbent Mark Warner in Virginia, started adult life as a Senate garage attendant but surged to power staffer status working for House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas in the 1990s. Democrat Rick Weiland, who’s hoping to win South Dakota’s open seat in an upset, spent six years ending in 1995 as the top state aide for Sen. Tom Daschle.  

Three southern Republicans running in solid GOP districts will be able to pack for Washington if they win their primaries. Venture capitalist John McCallum, a legislative aide for Newt Gingrich when he was speaker, is in the top  tier vying for the Georgia seat Jack Kingston is vacating to run for Senate. Former state Sen. David Rouzer, who worked for both 0f North Carolina’s senators between 1996 and 2001, lost last time by 654 votes to Rep. Mike McIntyre and is running again with the benefit of the Democratic incumbent planning his retirement.  

And in an adjoining district in eastern North Carolina, Rep. Walter B. Jones is facing one of the better-financed primary challenges to a GOP incumbent this year — from Taylor Griffin, an official in the George W. Bush administration who got his start in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee press office in 1999 when the chairman was Jesse Helms.  

In the outermost D.C. suburbs, two Republican ex-aides are working to secure the nominations for open seats: State Rep. Barbara Comstock worked in the first half of the 1990s for the member she seeks to succeed, Rep. Frank. R. Wolf, then spent four years investigating the Clinton administration for House Oversight and Government Reform. Alex X. Mooney, did a couple of tours in the past two decades with Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland. After chairing that state’s GOP, serving in its state Senate and running briefly to succeed his Hill patron, Mooney has actually moved to West Virginia in hopes of replacing Shelley Moore Capito, who is running for Senate.  

Three others will be hailed as prime candidates to defeat Democratic freshmen and pick up swing districts for the GOP — if they make it to the general election. In northern California, Igor Birman, chief of staff to Rep. Tom McClintock since his arrival in 2009, is running in an adjacent district held by Rep. Ami Bera. In southern California, state Rep. Brian Nestande, chief of staff from 1995 until 2000 for Rep. Sonny Bono and then his widow, Rep. Mary Bono Mack, wants to take on Rep. Raul Ruiz. And in south Florida, Miami-Dade School Board member Carlos Curbelo, state director at the end of the last decade for appointed Sen. George LeMieux, is after Rep. Joe Garcia’s seat.  

Former Maine state Sen. Kevin Raye is mounting his third campaign for the more rural of the state’s House seats, open because Democratic Rep. Michael H. Michaud is running for governor. Before his first run, in 2002, he spent almost two decades working in the House and Senate for Olympia J. Snowe, the last six years as her chief of staff.  

Of the two former staffers running for the House as Democrats, the party has much higher hopes for Amanda Renteria, who spent six years as chief of staff for Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan before returning home to the southern Central Valley of California to take on freshman Republican Rep. David Valadao in a district President Barack Obama last carried by 11 points. A much longer shot is John Lewis, the likely nominee for the open seat covering all Montana, where Obama’s approval rating last year was 33 percent. He recently ended a 12-year run as legislative aide and state director for former Sen. Max Baucus, now ambassador to China.  

After his swearing in, Jolly addressed his new peers, standing in the well of the House wearing that member pin. He said they should know two things about him. “I believe in all that is good and right about this institution, the opportunity that this institution has to make our nation better,” he said, and “I believe in civility,” where fighting “for the future of our country” is good but need not mean “a fight against each other.”  

Those are sentiments a former staffer can be expected to express from the House floor as persuasively as anyone else.  

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of the candidates.  It is Igor Birman.

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