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Get yourself a tight-knit group of female friends, Kuster says

That’s the best advice this congresswoman can give you

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., center, and Democratic members celebrate during the 2019 State of the Union as President Donald Trump recognizes the record number of women in Congress.
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., center, and Democratic members celebrate during the 2019 State of the Union as President Donald Trump recognizes the record number of women in Congress. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ann McLane Kuster road-tripped to Washington with her dog, learned how to sign her boss’ name, and stuffed food in her pockets at receptions, especially when rent was coming due.

That was the late 1970s, when she was working for anti-war California Rep. Paul Norton “Pete” McCloskey Jr. and hanging out at the Tune Inn, which was right around the corner from her apartment. Things are a little different now that Kuster is a congresswoman, but one thing hasn’t changed since her early days as a staffer on Capitol Hill: She surrounds herself with a network of female friends.

“You want to have women friends who support you through thick and thin,” the New Hampshire Democrat told me in a phone conversation this month.

Q: How did you come to work for McCloskey on the Hill?

A: I grew up in Concord, New Hampshire, in a political family. My parents were pretty active — and by the way, part of the story is that they all, Pete and my parents, were what we called “liberal Republicans.” Those don’t really exist anymore. Like, my mother was on the national NARAL board and she was one of the founders of the National Women’s Campaign Fund. 

So anyway, we were living in New Hampshire, and Pete McCloskey ran against Richard Nixon in a presidential primary in 1972. I was 16 and a sophomore at Concord High School, and my parents got very involved in his campaign, and I got very involved in his campaign, and I met all of the young people that came to the state. Many of them, they would come to our house every Wednesday night, and my mother would do a big spaghetti dinner for the whole staff. McCloskey had been a decorated Marine in the Korean War. He was running against the sitting president to protest the Vietnam War. 

Kuster grew up in a politically active family. Above, she visits the Capitol as a young girl during school vacation week.

So then, I went off to college. My family stayed close with him. When I was a senior — I went to Dartmouth College in the third class of women there — he was visiting my parents and said, “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?” 

I had no clue. It’s funny now to think about, but he said, “Why don’t you come down to Washington and work in my office?” And so I did. I packed up my little Toyota with 85,000 miles with my dog in it — my Siberian Husky — and I drove to Washington. I started work the day after my 22nd birthday. 

The funny part of that story is that another woman had a similar story with him. She drove with her Honda and a Golden Retriever all the way from Idaho, and we both arrived that Tuesday morning after Labor Day. The chief of staff, we used to say “administrative assistant,” took one look at the two of us and said, “There are no jobs available here.” We looked at each other in total panic, and she said, “You are welcome to use our office while you conduct your job search.” Half an hour later, McCloskey comes blowing through the door, and he says, “Annie, Nini, in my office now. Let’s get to work.” We took one look at her and one look at him, and we said, “We’re with him.” So it was an incredible ride. It was the most amazing three years of my life. I had no idea that adult life wouldn’t be like that. We had so much fun. 

Q: Do you remember which building his office was in?

A: Oh yes, Cannon 205. That’s why I’m still in Cannon. Jackie Speier worked right next door later. That whole trip that she went on with [Rep. Leo] Ryan, we were supposed to be on that trip, and at the last minute, McCloskey decided that he didn’t have a great feeling about it. 

Q: And you would’ve gone too as a staffer in 1978?

A: Yeah. I can still remember like it was yesterday. I was dropping my sister off at the airport, and all the newspapers in the machines had the story [of Ryan’s assassination during a visit to the Jonestown cult in Guyana], and I just froze. You know, I knew Jackie, she was the legislative director next door and the district next door out in California.

Q: Are you still close with her now, now that you’re both in Congress?

A: Much closer now. We didn’t know each other super well, it was more like hallmates, but yes, we do a lot of work together now. We co-chair the Bipartisan Congressional Task Force to End Sexual Violence. We’ve been very involved in working on issues related to women.

Q: What did you do in McCloskey’s office? What were your responsibilities?

A: We started out, Nini and I (we were like twins), as what you would now call legislative correspondents, only we did the entire job without computers. So we typed the responses to the letters. As we were typing, we were thinking, you know, drafting the response. We did this all day everyday. And then we would take them in to McCloskey to sign, or we learned to do his signature, so we would just sign them and mail them out. 

Ann McLane Kuster and Nini and Sydney “Nini” McNiff Johnson in the 1970s.

It was fascinating because his district was Stanford University. We had unbelievable constituents, very interesting issues of the day — nuclear non-proliferation. I did the environment and energy portfolio. He was on a committee that we used to call Merchant Marine and Fisheries. He was very involved in the Laws of the Sea Treaty, so we were doing all of the legislation around protecting our oceans. He was a big environmentalist. He had been involved in the creation of NEPA, the creation of the EPA. I had interned during college at the EPA. So we were very involved — the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, all of that. 

The two constituents that we had to run and find McCloskey wherever he was if they called were Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard. It was the very beginning of the computer industry in Silicon Valley, the beginning of Silicon Valley. We didn’t even use that word. We just called it Palo Alto. 

Q: Were you a legislative correspondent the whole time?

A: No, I became the legislative director, and they doubled my salary. The first salary was $750 a month, and the paycheck came at the end of the month, so you had to finagle how you were going to make it. Nini and I would go to the receptions for dinner, with shrimp and filet mignon, whatever they were serving, and we would stuff rolls in our pockets for breakfast the next day. When the paycheck came, it was $650 and — this is embarrassing — but I went in [to the payroll office] and I said, “He told me that I would get paid $750,” and she looked at me and said, “Surely you’ve heard of taxes.” 

Then I was making $1,000 a month, so $12,000 a year, and they made me the legislative director, about a year and a half into it. They doubled the salary from $12,000 to $24,000. But I was still living with Nini. She was my roommate back then, and I didn’t want anything to change with my friends, so I just lived the way they lived and put $1,000 a month in the bank. That’s how I paid to go to Georgetown Law School after three years.

Q: You were saving up?

A: Yeah. We had so much fun. We met everybody in town. McCloskey would play this game with us. When we went off to receptions or meetings, he would tell us to go meet people, and then come back and tell him who we met. So we’d come back with the calling cards and tell the stories. He was very generous. He was toward the end of his career on the Hill — he had been around a long time — so he was very kind and very generous to us. 

And that’s what I try to be to my team. We have a retreat every year now, and we came up with an ethos that we call “radical hospitality.” That’s the way we treat one another, that’s the way we treat our constituents and the people who come to our office, and that’s the way we approach my colleagues and other offices. That feeling came from McCloskey — you make yourself available for good things to happen to you, then you create relationships and networks. We were always working across the aisle because he was a liberal Republican, but it was a very Democratic House. I was there during that time when Tip O’Neill was the speaker and Ronald Reagan had become the president. Everything had to be bipartisan. We never questioned that. For example, I got very involved on a task force that Rep. Steve Solarz started. We were working on the independence of Zimbabwe and the end of apartheid in South Africa. 

I’ve done that with my own team. The opioid epidemic became a huge issue in New Hampshire, so I’m the founder and co-chair of the Bipartisan Opioid Task Force. When we realized that many of the people becoming addicted to opioids had underlying mental health issues, including trauma relating to sexual assault, we created the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence with Jackie Speier. It’s just a way of working that’s somewhat independent of the formal committee process at the outset. We can hold roundtable meetings to educate our colleagues, create an agenda of bipartisan legislation and encourage all our colleagues to sign onto these bills, and then we help to push those bills through committee. We’ve had a great deal of success with that approach, and that was everything I learned from McCloskey. 

Q: Is there a favorite hangout that you had back then?

A: Absolutely, the Tune Inn. We lived right around the corner. And we played softball. McCloskey was very competitive. Nini was a high-level horseback rider, and I was a college ski racer, so we had a coed team that was very competitive, and we ended up going all the way in the congressional softball tournament. [Ed. note — Nini is Sydney McNiff Johnson, now a energy consultant, and has donated to each of Kuster’s congressional campaigns since her election in 2012.]

That’s the other thing I should say hasn’t changed. We had an amazing network of women friends, and I have an incredible network now. My roommate is Katherine Clark, and I’m close with Cheri Bustos, Lois Frankel, Julia Brownley and Grace Meng.

This can be a challenging life and place to be, but it’s also very exciting, and you want to have women friends who support you through thick and thin and will back you up and help you to grow your own career. So I encourage my team, both the men and the women, to network among their friends. Having friends is a really important part of the job.

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