A chance reunion at a fundraiser sent Glenn Ivey to the Hill; now he’s back as a member
Time as a staffer included Whitewater hearings and stints with Rep. John Conyers Jr. and Sen. Paul Sarbanes
Maryland Democratic Rep. Glenn F. Ivey got his start on Capitol Hill with a conversation about jazz. After blanketing members of the Congressional Black Caucus with his résumé, Ivey landed an interview with one of its founders, Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan. Instead of talking politics, the two talked about music.
It was an instant connection and the start of a congressional career that would span both chambers, eventually leading Ivey to a role in the Senate Whitewater investigation into President Bill Clinton’s Arkansas real estate dealings.
Besides Conyers, Ivey worked for the Senate Banking Committee, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., and former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
Ivey, first elected to Congress in the fall, has held on to the connections and friendships he’s made over the years: His legislative director is someone he’s known since his early days on the Hill in the 1980s.
“For your readers out there who are working on the Hill, I would encourage them to maintain those contacts as they go through life, because you just never know where people are going to end up,” Ivey says.
This interview has been condensed.
Q: What made you want to work on the Hill?
A: I left law school and went to work at a law firm in Baltimore, and one day I got invited to a fundraiser that Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was holding. I’d never met her before, but I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, so the Kennedys were superstars politically, especially in the African American community.
When I knock on the door, the guy who opens it is a guy I went to Princeton with. And I’m like, “What are you doing here?” And he says, “I’m the campaign manager.”
So we start talking, and I just get so excited about all of it. I leave that night and decide to go work on Capitol Hill.
To tell you how long ago this was, I hand-wrote a new résumé and hired a typist. I had more than 20 typed up, and I sent one to each member of the Congressional Black Caucus. And Conyers’ office was the only one to respond.
Q: What was your first impression of Conyers?
A: It was a funny interview. He noticed on my résumé that I was a jazz fan, so he talked about jazz. After about half an hour, he got up and left the room.
I guess that’s just the way he did interviews. But we never talked about the position, we never talked about money. He just had a conversation with me, and that was it.
Q: Did working on the Hill live up to your expectations?
A: I didn’t really have a great sense of what members of Congress do, so all of it was new. One big change was going from law school writing to political writing, which is just totally different.
Conyers was iconic already, so that was a big deal. I grew up hearing about him on TV, and here I am working in the next room with the guy. He was there at the March on Washington with Dr. King, and he was a co-founder of the CBC.
Even when you get past the legislative piece, he had a great understanding of the symbolism of arts and culture. In fact, he was such a strong champion that there was a jazz club in D.C. called HR-57, because that was the number of his bill to make jazz a national treasure.
I think it was my first day in the office when James Baldwin died, and he had to go do a eulogy in New York. He remembered I was a James Baldwin fan, so he’s like, “Write the eulogy. The plane leaves at 2.”
Q: Years later, he resigned after accusations of sexual harassment. How did you react when you heard that?
A: I was very surprised. I mean, he was a single man when I was working for him, and he dated, but I’m not even sure I could tell you who he was dating at the time. It didn’t bleed over into his office or his professional life, at least as far as I could see. And we had women on the staff that, as far as I know, he wasn’t approaching or harassing. So it caught me completely off guard.
Q: You left the Hill a couple years later, but returned in the early 1990s. What drew you back?
A: I had a friend who was on the Senate Banking Committee, and he was leaving as the Whitewater hearings were starting to rev up.
I started there on the Banking Committee and did some work on redlining, but it quickly moved into the Whitewater hearings that the Democrats led in the first round.
Q: What changed after Republicans won control of both chambers in 1994?
A: After the Gingrich tsunami, things shifted in a couple of ways. It was the beginning of the rise of this very conservative, very aggressive wing of the Republican Party that culminated in Donald Trump, but we didn’t know that at the time.
The Senate Whitewater hearings evolved into Sen. Al D’Amato as chair. I definitely had different ideological views from [Republican counsel] Mike Chertoff, but the guy was an incredible lawyer, there’s no question about that. He did a great job, even if they weren’t able to take Clinton down.
On the House side, going on at the same time, you had Dan Burton over there shooting pumpkins in the backyard trying to figure out if Vince Foster committed suicide, pursuing all these kinds of crazy theories.
If you look at what is happening now with House Republicans, I guess the question is, which path are they going to choose? Are they going to be following the crazy conspiracy theories like the House did back then? Or are they going to try and be more substantive?
Q: What was it like working for Paul Sarbanes, who served as ranking member on the Whitewater committee?
A: He did tease me, because we both went to Princeton and Harvard Law School, but he had been a Rhodes Scholar. So he would joke, “Well, Glenn, you miss something in between there? What happened?”
One day, he called me into the office and asked me if I was interested in being a federal judge. I said, “I’m thinking about running for office.” He said, “Well, here’s what we’ll do. When I’ve got events in Prince George’s County, I’ll send you to be the speaker on my behalf, so you can get around and meet people.” He absolutely was my first real mentor in politics.
Q: Now that you’re back at the Capitol as a lawmaker yourself, what has changed?
A: In a lot of ways, it’s still the same. One secret that is not known outside the Beltway is the commitment and expertise at the staff level. In the personal offices, you have really, really young people in these offices. I remember when I first got here, I was a little surprised. But they’re really good at it.
People bash the government all the time, but if you look at the American structure from a civil servant level, it really is pretty phenomenal.