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‘Not all bosses are created equally’: Houchin remembers Coats as among the best

Former staffer was elected to Congress in the fall

Rep. Erin Houchin speaks to Roll Call in her office in Washington on Feb. 8.
Rep. Erin Houchin speaks to Roll Call in her office in Washington on Feb. 8. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Erin Houchin still remembers one of her first jobs as one that nearly eliminated politics as a career path entirely.

“I don’t want to call out anybody in particular, but I had one of the worst jobs in politics for about a year, and that was one of my very first jobs that I ever had,” she said.

Houchin decided to work in the family and child services arena after graduating from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but she found herself getting involved with politics through campaigns and her local Republican Party. Then former Sen. Dan Coats called her about a role serving as a regional director in Indiana. 

Houchin ended up spending three years with Coats, leaving to run for the Indiana Senate, where she served for eight years. She hopes to have a work environment similar to the one provided by Coats, who she said treated his staffers with decorum and kindness — not a universal experience for congressional staffers, she said.

“I just don’t want to carry on that way,” Houchin said.

She credits her time with Coats as the push she needed to run for office herself.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: How did you get started working in politics?

A: I had been an intern in the state legislature, so I was not unfamiliar with it. And I was very active in politics, volunteering for candidates. I became the district chairman for the Republican Party. I ran for that when I was nine months pregnant with my third child — I was elected on Saturday and delivered my son on Monday. 

While I was at home with the kids, I was trying to broaden my leadership in campaigns, thinking I would be a behind-the-scenes person. I started a program at the Graduate School of Political Management at [George Washington University]. I would put the kids to bed at 9 o’clock at night, study till 3 in the morning and then get up and be a stay-at-home mom the next day. 

I was a little bit older, so I had to knock some dust off the brain to get back in the swing of it. I had a professor tell me about 90 percent of the people in this program get a job offer before they graduate. Well, I was in Salem, Ind., thinking, I’m the 10 percent not getting a job in the field. But I love the education. 

Q: How did you start working for Coats?

A: Halfway through the program with GW, I got a call from the senator. “We’re looking for a regional director for the southeast part of the state.”

My husband said, “Go interview. Hear them out.” I was still wanting to stay home with my kids until my youngest went to kindergarten, so I wasn’t ready to get back in the workforce. But when your U.S. senator calls, you take the interview. 

He made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I accepted. I served as his regional director for about three years, in what they would consider Dan Coats 2.0, his second stint in the Senate. He was a wonderful boss and gave me tremendous opportunities — and it was through his example that I got an interest in serving as a legislator myself.

Q: How do you define a “wonderful boss”?

A: I have worked in the political realm for a while, and not all bosses are created equally. 

Some folks in the political sector would say, “You may not go through a door before me or you may not go in the elevator,” and you’ve got to refer to them in a certain way. But he would always open doors for me — insist I get in the elevator first, open the car door.

At one point, I was with the senator on a visit to the district, and I just mentioned that he’s really, really good to his staff. And he said, “You know what, I started as a staffer. I was a staffer for Dan Quayle. I know the job that you do, and I appreciate it.” 

And that has stuck with me in how I treat my own staff, being appreciative and respectful. This team is as much a part of my service to the community as I am.

Q: What were your job duties?

A: I was a district staffer, so my part in it was meeting with stakeholders and getting their feedback and referring it back to the D.C. office. I would be his eyes and ears and voice on the ground.

He would be very thoughtful and careful about taking any positions on legislation, even though there’s always a lot of pressure to take a stance before a bill is what I would consider ripe. 

I wasn’t treated any differently as a district staff than if I were a Hill staffer. That’s meaningful, and certainly something I want to foster with my own office.

I did have to drive him some, and we were able to go to the Indiana State Police Academy and take what they called evasive driving. I never had to use that, but I was prepared to drive evasively if I ever had to escape quickly with the senator.

Q: What memories stand out from your time with him?

A: At one point, we were waiting for a meeting to start, and he accidentally pocket-dialed Dan Quayle. He pulls out his phone and he’s like, “Oh, I just pocket-dialed the [former] vice president.” He hangs up, and Dan Quayle immediately calls back. So that was a funny moment. 

Another time, I had to staff him at an Indiana University basketball game. I’m an IU alum; that’s where I got my undergraduate degree. I’m just over the moon that I get to watch a game with the senator and his wife. We get to our seats, and he turns around and says, “Do you want popcorn, do you want cola?”

And I said, “No, sir. Let me get something for you.” He’s like, “Nope, stay here.” So he went to the concession stand and got a popcorn for me.  And I said, “Well, now I’m going to need a cola.” He said, “I’ll be right back.”

Q: Now that you’re a member of Congress yourself, what lessons are you carrying forward from your staffing days?

A: I don’t want to call out anybody in particular, but I had one of the worst jobs in politics for about a year. That was one of my first jobs I ever had, and it was just a bad experience and almost ruined the political side for a while.

It was a dichotomy. I saw what not to do, and then [with Coats], I saw how to be in the role through his example. 

We had a very catastrophic tornado that came through Henryville and Marysville and other areas, and I was on the ground with FEMA for about six months in the aftermath of that. Sen. Coats was there within 24 to 48 hours. He would go up to members of the community standing in front of the rubble of their homes and embrace them. He was there not just as a senator or a political person, but as a human. 

[Working for Coats] changed the trajectory of what I did with my life. It led me to run for the state legislature, and it led me where I am today. Short of that experience, I’m not sure what path I would be on, but it would probably be behind the scenes, instead of out in front as the representative. 

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