The good and bad of hiring a friend

It’s well known that Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) was once a quarterback for the Washington Redskins, but few people know that he used to play ball against his chief of staff, Hayden Rogers.

The two have ties that go back to high school. Rogers, a defensive tackle and offensive lineman back then, remembers Shuler as someone that everyone knew as a “future star.”

Rogers went on to study political science at Princeton University and said it was “logical” to start working for Shuler’s campaign. The two had kept in touch after high school and both ran small businesses in the area.

But the high-school rivalry endures. Shuler and Rogers still harbor disagreements about who had a better team. Shuler was a Swain County Maroon Devil and Rogers was a Robbinsville Black Knight.

“They didn’t fare too well against us,” Shuler said.

To which Rogers countered, “We should’ve beaten them. The referees gave us the short end of the stick. We won more state championships than they did.”

While some lawmakers and staff members believe that discussing their previous and personal relationships is taboo, it is normal in Washington and in the business world to hire people whom you know and trust.

In politics, trust is especially important. Staffers write bills, draft talking points, update members on issues, drive lawmakers around town, and give their bosses valuable information. Why not choose someone you’ve known for a long time to hold a critical post?

Another example is Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), who hired as senior policy adviser Frank Davis, a friend of 30 years who once worked with Clay as a doorman in the Capitol. But Clay also warned that bringing a friend into your professional life could backfire, especially when it comes to firing. 

“In some cases, sometimes you have to fire your friends for job performance,” he said. He added jokingly, “He’ll have his job for another year.”

Although there are sometimes cases, as Clay mentioned, when members fire staff who are friends, he didn’t go into details of his own staff firings.

Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, has a unique relationship with his chief of staff. She is Arlene Willis, his wife.

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) knows one of his press secretaries from a previous life: Pat Lowry was his high school American history teacher.

Lowry said that he taught both Ryan and Ryan’s older brother, Al. He said they were both good students and athletes.

Lowry distinctly remembers when Ryan was named basketball player of the year for his county. A reporter came to the school and interviewed Ryan’s coach. In the story, the coach said, “Tim’s a leader. A guy that people follow.”

Over the years, Lowry said, they kept in touch. Ryan even gave Washington tours for visiting school classes led by Lowry’s wife, also a teacher in Ohio.

Ryan is a “talented, talented guy,” Lowry said. He’s a “legacy in this district.”

Added Lowry: “I have always said that one of my students grew up and became a congressman, and then he hired me.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) brought on two people from her home state to work in her Washington office.

Berkley met her scheduler, Joanne Jensen, in middle school. They also attended the same high school and college, but were never very close, Jensen said.

“We ran in different circles, but we were aware of each other,” she said. “I would say that we’re close [now].”

Jensen said the pair lost touch for about 15 years, but Jensen always remembered one of Berkley’s high-school campaign speeches.

“She was running for an office and she said that she wanted to go to Congress,” Jensen recalled.

Berkley Chief of Staff Richard Urey has also known the congresswoman for years.

“She was a freshman legislator in Nevada representing an area of Las Vegas,” Urey said. “I was a hungry TV reporter.”

Urey first met with Berkley over 20 years ago, while he was covering a hearing in Clark County, Nev.

“I don’t remember a specific issue,” Urey said. “I do recall that she was somebody who was making the clearest points” and could “make a point in a sound bite.”

After moving on from reporting to become communications director for Nevada Gov. Bob Miller (D), Urey said he ran into Berkley from time to time. When Berkley decided to run for Congress in 1998, Urey joined her campaign.

Urey remembered that Berkley looked a bit different in the 1980s.

“Her hairstyle was different,” he said. “It was a lot bigger, bolder. Not necessarily better.”

But a true testament to their friendship came when both first moved to Washington.

“Shelley was looking for a place to live on the Hill,” Urey recalled. She called him and said, “‘I’m at a little place near the Supreme Court building. It’s really a dump — it’s perfect for you.’ And it was.”