The trail is ablaze with aides

If there’s one thing a Capitol Hill staffer abhors, it’s being out of the action for any length of time. An aide must do what it takes to get her political fix. Even if it means standing on a grassy embankment outside a shopping mall in West Virginia with a campaign sign, getting yelled at by people in their cars.

This is what Megan Taormino, the press secretary for retiring Rep. Doug Ose (R-Calif.), did in 2002 when she campaigned for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

 

“Some people would yell out their window and cheer,” the 24-year-old aide recalled. “Others would yell, ‘I’m not voting for her!’”

With election season in full swing, congressional aides like Taormino are taking advantage of the down time by heading out onto campaign trails to help their bosses, help other people’s bosses, help the presidential candidates, help their parties — or even help candidates they’ve never met.

In most offices, the lines of congressional work and campaign work are clearly defined. If staffers want to work on a campaign, they must use their personal vacation time.

But in some other offices, the work is split between official congressional duties and campaign work and the aide is paid from dual pots.

In other instances, the aide isn’t paid at all, and simply works free on the weekends.

John Lopez, 35, is the deputy chief of staff for Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). It’s Monday morning, and he’s sitting in a coffee shop at The Venetian, a hotel in Las Vegas. This is his first day on the campaign trail, where he will coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts for the Bush-Cheney campaign as well as Rep. Jon Porter’s (R-Nev.) reelection race.

Lopez has it better than most aides on the trail. For the entire week, he will stay at the four-diamond Sin City hotel, with its casino, 17 restaurants, bars, shops and two museums.

“Everyone here checks their egos at the door,” says Lopez. “If they need me to walk a precinct, I will do whatever is needed.”

He concedes he’s happy to be out of Washington. “All the action is going on in the battleground states,” he says. “The hardest thing for me is you have to get someone to watch your dog for a couple of weeks.”

Many insist that volunteering on a campaign leaves no time for fun; they say grunt work begins early in the morning and ends late at night. But amid the long hours, Robb Watters, a 36-year-old lobbyist with the Madison Group in Washington, D.C., who is coordinating voting efforts for the Bush-Cheney campaign alongside Lopez, finds time for a few friendly poker games.

 
DRAWINGS BY RAHIEM

“I’m doing logistical coordination,” he explains, “making sure people are going to the polls.”

Just a few nights ago, he was sitting in a bar in the Aladdin Resort Hotel and Casino when he ran into Paris Hilton, who was there promoting her new nightclub. Waters, who is married, wasn’t terribly impressed. In fact, he says, “She’s really short. I was very uninterested”

He’s also not enthralled with Vegas. “I hate Las Vegas,” he says. “I get up at 4:30 every morning, go to the gym at 5 and work out for one hour, and am at campaign headquarters by 7. I work until 8 or 9 at night. If this sounds like it’s glamorous, it’s not. I drink a lot of grapefruit juice. The food on campaigns is horrible. It’s carbohydrate hell here.”

So what’s he doing there? “If you work in the political arena, you owe it to your party to do all you can,” Watters says. He and a few other volunteers are picking up the hotel costs and donating rooms to the state party, he says.

He can’t help but crack jokes about the accommodations his wife, Blair Watters, also a lobbyist at the Madison Group, has had for the past five days in Harrisburg, Pa. — the guest bedroom of a middle-age couple, where she shared a bed with an office intern.

Unlike her husband, Blair Watters is a Democrat and has been helping the Elizabeth Edwards advance team. “Robb will make it that we’re in a total s- - - hole,” she says. “It’s because Republicans really don’t know how to spend their money. They’d rather eat filet mignon.”

Blair says her accommodations were fine and the couple was kind. She says working long hours coordinating phone banks and setting up neighborhood canvassing left her wiped out by the day’s end, when she’d return to the couple’s house and crash.

Much to Robb’s dismay, the other night he flipped on his TV in Las Vegas and saw Blair standing behind Elizabeth Edwards. “What are you going to do?” he says, explaining the awkwardness of sitting around with his GOP buddies and saying, ‘There’s my wife!’”

In Athens, Ga., Mandy Kenney, legislative director for Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), is pitching in on John Barrow’s race against Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.).

Kenney, who is there for 17 days, says Thompson strongly encourages his staff to volunteer because he thinks of it as “great professional development.”

She thinks so, too. “You meet contacts who you will keep sometimes through your whole career,” she says.

Jonathan Martin, a legislative assistant for Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), has taken a two-month leave to work on the congressman’s campaign. On a recent afternoon, he knocked on 75 doors, one of which was answered by an elderly woman who invited him into her living room, where she showed him a textbook written by her son, a political science professor.

In the end, she agreed to vote for Simmons but wanted to split the ticket and vote for Kerry. “She was a bit tough, her son being a political science professor,” Martin says.

Back down south, Patrick Creamer, the press secretary for Rep. John Boozman (R-Ark.), splits his time between congressional work and the campaign. The congressional office is in Fayetteville; the campaign office is in Lowell.

“Oh, it’s great,” he says. “I love getting out here. The district is throughout the Ozark mountain range. The leaves are starting to turn. It’s beautiful.”

Creamer, who has been sleeping on an uncomfortable air mattress in a former co-worker’s home, says it’s nice to get out of Washington and spend time with some “down-home folks.”

He says he has had zero time for fun but hasn’t minded the days that begin at 8:30 a.m. and stretch until 11 p.m. “I’d be crazy if I were in D.C. right now,” he says. “It’s pretty much a ghost town. It’s better to be out where the action is right now.”