By Jessica Holzer - 05/21/07 08:16 PM EDT
At 20, he started his own photography business. At 21, he was tapped to run the congressional campaign of Walter Tucker, a Democrat then serving as mayor of Compton, Calif. After Tucker won, the 22-year-old Mason became the youngest chief of staff on Capitol Hill. By his early 30s, he was the No. 2 lobbyist at Amtrak.
“There’s a lot of great talent out there that just needs to be given a great opportunity to show what they can do,” Mason explained. “Somebody took a chance on me at 21, a real gamble.”
Last year, Mason and a handful of other black lobbyists, many of them former congressional chiefs of staff, began working in earnest to boost the number of black aides on Capitol Hill.
Seizing on the hot demand for staffers after the Democratic takeover, the group established a vetting committee and began collecting résumés from promising candidates. Mason created a résumé bank to streamline the effort, which is already bearing fruit. So far, the group has placed 36 blacks in congressional offices.
A Citigroup lobbyist and group member, Paul Thornell, has been impressed by Mason’s contribution.
“He’s somebody who brings very good energy to both his client work and the work we’ve done on this issue,” he said. “He’s very positive, very solution-oriented and very collaborative.”
A former college football player who pens spy novels in his spare time, Mason isn’t one to sleep much. He says he tries to bring the energy of a political campaign to his lobbying work.
But people who know him well also say he has an earnestness born out of being thrown into challenges at an early age.
“He’s always been very wise and serious-minded beyond his years. He seems to be at his best when he’s having to operate in crisis mode,” said Joyce Brayboy, a lobbyist at Glover Park Group and a former chief of staff to Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) who met Mason when he first came to the Hill.
As Tucker’s chief of staff, Mason had to run the congressional office while his boss was defending himself against federal charges of taking bribes while he was mayor of Compton. Tucker was eventually convicted and resigned from Congress.
Mason insists that his first political mentor was the victim of prejudice. “I always thought he got a raw deal,” he said.
When the late Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) took over Tucker’s seat, Mason became her co-chief of staff.
The congresswoman’s recent death dealt a blow to Mason, who considered her a second mother. Mason’s own parents died of cancer within months of each other, and Millender-McDonald spoke at his mother’s funeral. The two women were very similar and possessed the same ethos of public service, he said.
Mason’s mother, an Allstate agent and real estate investor, was the one who first urged him to enter politics. “She taught me that, as a black male, I had a responsibility to make a difference,” he said. “I think it’s because so many people write black males off from the beginning.”
Growing up in Compton not far from a rail line and an airport, Mason developed an early fascination with transportation that would later become a theme of his career. Mason recalls being the only kid in his neighborhood who watched NASCAR: “I was a fan of Dale Earnhardt when they were doing Monte Carlos,” he said.
Today, toy planes, trains and racecars scatter every smooth surface in his office. A photo of him inside a Boeing space shuttle with a beaming Millender-McDonald, both of them wearing spacesuits, hangs on his wall. “I like things with wheels. I like things that move,” he explained.
As a railroad lobbyist, Mason has worked to fend off further regulation of the industry since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He argues that rail companies reacted swiftly to beef up security without any prodding from government. “Railroads do better unregulated. These guys know their business,” he said.
As a former staffer to two Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) members, Mason acknowledged that his clout with lawmakers may have grown with the Democratic takeover and the ascension of several CBC members to prominent committee chairmanships. But he insisted that he is used to working with members from both parties because rail issues break along regional rather than partisan lines.
Aside from Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) and former Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.), Mason singled out Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as a strong supporter of the rail industry with whom he has worked closely.
He said he wasn’t bothered by the remarks Lott gave in 2002 at the birthday party of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and says those comments were misconstrued as racist. “At the end of the day, it was much ado about nothing,” he said. “When he said it, he was roasting his buddy, his colleague in the Senate.”
Mason said he would apply the same energetic team approach that served him so well at Amtrak and on the Hill to his new role at the Madison Group. He did not rule out returning to politics down the road, saying he’d been asked to run “on more than one occasion.”
But he suggested that a more immediate aim would be to develop more business in California, which he calls his “refuge.”
“My ultimate goal is to build a practice that allows me to be bicoastal,” he said.