When congressional staffers are elected officials too

Staffers who wear two hats have to answer to their boss’ constituents — and their own

Connecticut state Rep. Sean Scanlon works for Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy. (Courtesy Connecticut General Assembly)
Connecticut state Rep. Sean Scanlon works for Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy. (Courtesy Connecticut General Assembly)
Posted July 19, 2019 at 6:00am

Sean Scanlon caught the political bug when he was a kid growing up in Guilford, Connecticut. 

Many young people infected with the same passion for politics often face a choice: Do you want to run for office yourself and be a politician? Or do you work in politics behind the scenes?

Scanlon has been able to do both — at the same time. 

Based in Connecticut, he’s currently the director of outreach for Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, whose team he joined in 2009 when Murphy was six months into his second term in the House. But Scanlon is also an elected official in his own right. With Murphy’s encouragement, he ran for the state House in 2014. 

Scanlon isn’t alone. There’s a small cadre of congressional staffers who serve federal politicians in their day jobs but are also state elected officials. In Murphy’s office alone, two other staffers hold or are trying to hold elected office. State Rep. Hilda Santiago is a caseworker for the senator. Ben Florsheim, who’s an outreach staffer for the senator, is running for mayor of Middletown. 

A handful of other members of Congress — from both parties and chambers — employ state elected officials. 

Maryland state Sen. Michael Hough is the chief of staff for West Virginia Rep. Alex X. Mooney, a Republican who was himself a state senator in Maryland before moving to West Virginia to run for an open congressional seat. His legislative website says he lives in Brunswick, Maryland, which is about 14 miles from where Mooney lives in Charles Town, West Virginia. Hough was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2010 and to the state Senate in 2014 — the same year Mooney was elected to Congress. 

On the other side of the aisle, Maryland state Del. Jazz Lewis works for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer as a senior policy adviser. Lewis, who was elected in 2016, was previously executive director of Hoyer’s Maryland political operation and was the Maryland political director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. 

Like Lewis, Scanlon got his start in local politics by organizing for other politicians. He started as an outreach coordinator for Murphy. On weekends, when the then-congressman was back in the district, Scanlon was his driver. And during weekdays, when Murphy was in Washington, Scanlon would attend community events. He’s been with Murphy ever since — he said he just had his “10-year Murph-a-versary” — but has left the official side to join Murphy’s campaign team several times. 

Scanlon met his wife, Meghan Forgione, working for Murphy. She went on to work for the campaign of freshman Rep. Jahana Hayes, whom Murphy supported last year when she ran for the 5th District, his old seat. 

When a longtime state legislator who represented Guilford was planning her retirement, she approached Scanlon to say he should think about running. The work Scanlon’s done with Murphy was good preparation for launching his own campaign for the open 98th District. 

“There’s no better training to see how this job works than to watch someone do it well, and Chris does it well,” Scanlon said. “His best advice was, ‘Go knock on a lot of doors.’” Scanlon, then just 27 years old, said he knocked on 5,000 doors. 

He defeated his Republican opponent by fewer than 1,000 votes. 

Scanlon is based in Hartford and comes down to D.C. about once a year. Serving in the state Assembly is a part-time paid position. So when he’s not working for Murphy, he takes leave from the senator’s office to do his other duties.

There’s a good amount of overlap between the two roles. As Scanlon said, he wears his two hats “on top of each other.” His colleagues in the state House know what he does for his full-time job, he said, and they’ve often reached out for assistance if one of their constituents needs help.

But congressional staffers balancing these roles also need to be careful. The House Ethics Manual has strict rules about outside employment. Senior congressional staffers cannot accept compensation for being an elected or appointed government official.

Regardless of seniority, congressional staffers in the House and Senate who hold elected office cannot use congressional resources for local government projects, or vice versa, and they must use their own time to do local government work.

But tracking money and resources is one thing.

“A little bit harder to gauge is not using the authority of say, your official congressional position, to further your local activities,” said Robert Walker, a lawyer at Wiley Rein and former chief counsel and staff director of the House and Senate Ethics committees. 

It gets particularly tricky, Walker said, if your job involves community outreach. Sometimes this might require congressional staffers to recuse themselves from congressional work on a specific local project that they’re involved in in their elected capacity.

“The individuals involved have an obligation to self-police,” Walker said. 

So does working for a much more powerful and well-known lawmaker ever put Scanlon in an awkward position, if say, one of his constituents didn’t vote for Murphy?

“[It’s] not something that people have made a big deal to me about,” Scanlon said. “We’re aligned on a lot of issues. That’s never happened.”

Hillary Clinton carried the entire state by 14 points; she carried Scanlon’s district by 23 points. Murphy was reelected last fall by 20 points, while Scanlon ran unopposed. 

Would he ever consider making the leap to federal office?

“I’m taking it one day at a time,” said Scanlon, who’s expecting his first child this year. But he didn’t rule it out. 

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