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Do you have to be a lawyer to work on the Hill? No, says Rep. Andrea Salinas

In the land of law degrees and pedigrees, she found her own path

“There isn’t a gene for tax and trade issues,” a mentor once told Andrea Salinas. Above, the Oregon Democrat participates in the office lottery for new members of Congress in December.
“There isn’t a gene for tax and trade issues,” a mentor once told Andrea Salinas. Above, the Oregon Democrat participates in the office lottery for new members of Congress in December. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Andrea Salinas learned politics — the good and the bad — as a young staffer in the 1990s.

It was hard to find work as a Democrat after Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress in the 1994 midterms, Salinas recalls. It was especially hard without a background in political science or a law degree.

But a staff assistant job with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada helped get her foot in the door, and soon she landed a legislative role with Rep. Pete Stark of California.

“You don’t need any of that,” she says of advanced degrees. “You can learn on the job.”

A famously combative liberal, Stark was known for tangling with his Republican colleagues, calling one a “fascist” and another a “little wimp.” 

Now a freshman in Congress herself, representing Oregon’s new 6th District, Salinas says she plans to pick her battles. “You want to be like, ‘Hey boss, maybe don’t say that.’ … Sometimes it’s good to think before you speak,” she says.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You started out as an intern for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, working in the California office when you were a student at Berkeley. What was that like? 

A: They did have one other college intern at the time, but they were delighted to have someone just call them up and say, “Hey, would you be willing to take on an intern?”  

I helped open mail and write letters, and I got excited for her reelection in 1994. It really opened my eyes to the need for campaign finance reform and how much money goes into races.

When I was working for her, I was also applying to law school. I was studying for the LSAT, but I didn’t do very well. At that point, I still thought I wanted to be an attorney. 

Q: After that, you moved to D.C. What made you want to do that?

A: I thought, “OK, I’ll take a year off before I retake the LSAT.” I knew I wanted to work on the Hill, because I loved the work with Feinstein so much. I wanted to just get a flavor of that before I thought I was going to law school. 

And then once I was here, I would meet with different chiefs of staff who made me realize, yes, you can go back and get a law degree or a master’s degree in public policy or public administration, but you don’t need any of that. You can learn on the job.

I literally had $1,000 in the bank and one suitcase, and because it was the Republican revolution, it was hard for Democrats to find a job. I started off working as a barista at a coffee shop and then got hired at the Chemical Manufacturers Association, just as a staff assistant.

But I continued to interview on the Hill, and I made some friends in Harry Reid’s office. 

Q: How did you land a Hill job in the end?

A: It took me a year, but I got a staff assistant job in Sen. Reid’s office. He would call every morning, and I would patch him through to his personal assistant, and sometimes he’d give me instructions to do X, Y and Z.

Not knowing he had hung up and me asking questions back was always fun. 

Next, I moved to the back office and was a legislative correspondent, but then a position on the House side opened up for a Bay Area member, Pete Stark. So I became a legislative assistant and started doing his Social Security work for Ways and Means.

I knew that we were, even in the minority, preventing bad things from happening. This was the Clinton administration, and people were saying, “Oh, what would a privatized Social Security program look like?” So just sticking up for the little guy was exhilarating and intoxicating. 

Q: Did you ever feel the absence of a law degree? Did people underestimate you?

A: Anne Raffaelli in the Stark office was getting ready to retire, and she was doing tax and trade. She wanted to hand those issues over to me, but Pete said something to her like, “What? She can’t do those issues!” Because Anne did have her law degree — she was an attorney. 

And Anne said, “There isn’t a gene for tax and trade issues.” She was like, “She can do this work. She’s really bright and sharp.” And so they gave me a try, and I think they were very pleased.

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., in October 1993. (Laura Patterson/CQ Roll Call)

Q: Stark had a reputation for being abrasive. Was he a difficult person to work for? 

A: I only have one story where he yelled at me. And here’s the thing: He was motivated by the same things that I was motivated by. He wanted to help people. He wanted to help the little guy. It manifested, though, in him being more cantankerous. That’s just not my style. 

I want to say it was when we were bringing China into [permanent normal trade relations]. He was one of the few members of the Ways and Means Committee who continually tried to bring up human rights and labor rights. Those provisions never got put into the body of these trade agreements, which meant they were then not enforced. 

We knew there was going to be a flood of assault rifles under this agreement of bringing in China, so we were going to offer an amendment. But we got a call basically saying, “We don’t want your boss to offer this. The Clinton administration thinks it’s actually going to hurt us, and we’re going to see that flood of assault rifles sooner than if you just stayed silent.” So I had to go in and explain this to him. 

And he got really mad. He was like, “Don’t you understand? They are not on our side!” I was like, “Whoa! I’m just the messenger.” It’s just a matter of strategy, how we play this. 

He would get frustrated and mad and angry at the systems, the same ones that I was mad and angry at too. It was good for him to push back on me, but also for me to push back on him. I’ve had other colleagues from the Stark office who were like, “Wow, you were really lucky.”

Q: He was known for losing his temper and publicly lashing out at colleagues. What was that like for you as a staffer — are you watching C-SPAN in horror, knowing you’re going to be on clean-up duty?

A: Yes. I mean, as a staffer, that’s what you do. And I said this to my own staff recently when we had our retreat back home: “The one thing you can do is save me from myself.” 

When I have an instinct or an impulse to do something that is probably going to not look good in front of my constituents or hurt some long-term relationship that I will then have to repair, please save me from myself. 

Sometimes you’re on the dais, you’re in the moment. But you can’t always be in the moment. It’s good to think before you speak. And I think as a staffer, that is what I really learned — because I remember having to go back and help repair some relationships that I knew my boss would want again.

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