When Lisa Blunt Rochester went to a town hall meeting in the late 1980s, she wasn’t necessarily looking for a job. She just wanted to hear what her elected officials had to say.
“I remember hearing him and listening to the issues,” the Democrat from Delaware says of her representative in Congress at the time, Thomas R. Carper.
She was holding her toddler, but she didn’t let that stop her from walking up to Carper after the event. “I introduced myself, I applied for the internship, and I got it,” she says.
She kept working for him in the 1990s when he became governor of Delaware, before eventually running for Congress herself.
“Now it’s kind of a full-circle moment,” says Blunt Rochester, who became the first woman and the first Black person to represent her state when she won in 2016. She still sees a lot of her old boss, who now serves in the Senate.
“That internship was a life-changing experience for me, because it gave me a real taste of what public service could be,” she says. “And now here I am.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you start working for Carper?
A: I was a mom and a grad student, and I had my 2-year-old son, Alex, on my hip. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was pregnant with my second child, my daughter Alyssa. I went to a town hall meeting in my neighborhood, in the basement of this old Catholic school, and afterward I just walked up to him with my son on my hip and introduced myself.
He told me they had internships in his office, which is so funny now when I reflect, because it’s the same thing I do. Whenever I meet young people, I’ll say, “Hey, we have internships.”
Q: What was it like to be an intern in the late 1980s?
A: The first day I showed up at the office and stood outside the glass door early, and nobody was there. I couldn’t get in, and this other young woman was standing with me as well. The two of us didn’t realize we were both interns. That’s why we were so early.
For about three months, I started off doing the internship, and it really was one of those life-changing moments. I was working on issues that I would then go on to work on as a caseworker and as a staffer, like Social Security disability cases and helping people with their IRS challenges and housing. That grounding really did launch me to today.
Q: From there, how did you land your job as a full-time caseworker on Carper’s staff?
A: It was the casework that I had done as an intern that prepared me to be a caseworker. And I come from a family where social work is also ingrained in us. My father has his master’s in social work from Rutgers. My sister has her master’s in social work from Rutgers, and so does my daughter.
I got that job as a staffer, but then ended up changing and becoming the special projects coordinator. I got tired of telling people, “I’m sorry, you have to get a Section 8 voucher or get on a waiting list for housing.” I wanted to help create housing. So I changed from working one-on-one with individuals to working on projects to help communities or businesses that were having challenges with the federal government. That shift was a big one for me, and I was really happy to do it.
This was before Google searches. You literally had to have contacts in the agencies. You had to look at the Federal Register. You had to find ways to get money to Delaware.
Q: And all that time, you were based in the district office in Delaware?
A: Correct. Because I was in the district office, I didn’t have the same experiences as folks who were working on the Hill. They would allow you to take the train and visit the D.C. office, and it just felt so foreign. The energy was different. The staff was different.
When I came to visit as an intern, we did these pictures with the member on the steps of the Capitol. And I’ll never forget standing on the steps with Tom Carper thinking, “Hey, maybe someday, I could be the congressperson. Maybe I could be the first woman to represent Delaware in Congress.”
It only took 30 years or however long, and it was a real journey. I always say to people, “See it, believe it, say it, do it.” But I don’t know if I believed it was really possible until later in life.
And now here I am. I became the first woman and the first person of color to represent Delaware.
Q: Did you talk to Carper about wanting to run for office?
A: It’s so funny. Many times. He encouraged me to run for different things throughout my life, and I would say to him, “You know, I am a person of faith. I need to be called by God.”
Anybody who knows Tom Carper knows he will call literally everybody, including my mother, on their birthdays. He calls staff from years ago. He called me every year, I don’t care where in the world I was. One year he called me and he said, “Lisa, this is God.” He was trying to encourage me to run.
Q: When Carper became governor of Delaware in the 1990s, you kept working for him. What was that like?
A: I have a hard hat from the groundbreaking for the Job Corps in Delaware. It was something that started for me when Tom Carper was in the congressional office, and then when Carper became governor, I served in his cabinet, ultimately as secretary of Labor. I got to watch Job Corps from the beginning of it being an idea to it actually becoming a place where young people came to really soar.
I think I still have the shovel as well from the groundbreaking. And now as a congresswoman I got to visit and talk to the staff there about the challenges during COVID. That’s just one example of something I remember going from start to finish in my career.
Q: Carper serves in the Senate now, while you’re in the House. How does it feel to see your old boss around the Hill?
A: We collaborate. We’ve done joint hearings together. I’ve testified before his committee as recently as this summer. We did a field hearing together in the state of Delaware, where the two of us presided over mayors from coastal towns and community members.
We have great teams, and our staff work well together. And we have a common set of experiences, like being in the lowest-elevation state in the country. People don’t realize that Delaware is impacted by sea level rise more than many states. So we both are leading a bill called the SHORRE Act to protect beaches and riverbanks.
I get to work on these issues hand-in-hand with him. It’s really incredible — he went from my congressman and my boss to my colleague.