A staffer's life switched upside down

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s announcement last week that he was leaving the Republican Party to become a Democrat left his staffers disoriented. Not only did a few of them learn the news after his decision began spreading on TV and the Internet, but some found out shortly before a committee hearing, leaving them scrambling for seats on the other side of the room.

“Arlen is switching sides. Sit behind the Democrats’ side of the lectern today at the hearing,” one staffer was told minutes before a hearing, according to a Senate source.

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Aides are oftentimes the closest and most loyal people to lawmakers, but even staffers can be caught off guard when their bosses change teams.

Members of Congress who switch political parties may simply be surrendering to a calling in their heart, but the aftermath of such a decision isn’t nearly as poetic. Staffers who work for a defecting lawmaker have, as a result, their own soul-searching to do: Should I be loyal to the lawmaker or to the party?

It remains to be seen what Specter’s aides will decide. Chief of Staff Scott Hoeflich said in an e-mail statement that he, for one, is staying with the senator.

“This is a personal decision for everyone, which the office certainly respects,” he said. “As a Pennsylvanian, I have a great deal of admiration and respect for Sen. Specter and the work he has done for my home state. I’m loyal to Sen. Specter, I believe in him, and I will stay with him. I look forward to working for him as he continues to represent the people of Pennsylvania.”

In the past, other staffers also found the decision to be easy.

On March 2, 1995, Dave Devendorf was told to be available for a late-night conference call with his boss, then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado. He learned his boss planned the next day to leave the Democratic Party and become a Republican.

“Obviously it was a major, major story,” said Devendorf, at the time the director of constituent services for the senator. He recalled his feelings of anxiety before learning of the switch. “Compared to some of the things that were running through my mind, I was somewhat relieved.

“I was never terribly political,” added Devendorf, who later became Campbell’s chief of staff and still works with the former senator at the law firm of Holland and Knight. “I’ve always been pretty simpatico with Ben in terms of trains of thought … If anything, my views might’ve been more conservative. I just felt like it was a blip on the radar screen.”

In his defense, Campbell said in a phone interview that he did think about how his switch would affect his staff but knew ultimately that “you’ve got to do what you think is right.”

“I only remember two of the staff that flew off in a huff because I changed parties,” he said.

Campbell said he wasn’t concerned about whether his staffers would follow his lead and change their party affiliations.

“I think I might’ve been one of the few senators who didn’t know what party his staffers were,” he said. “I never cared, really, what party they were ever in. I just cared that they were going to do the job.”

But some of the party shifts in the Senate have been harder on staff members.

When then-Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) left the GOP in 2001 to become an Independent, his staff — and even his family — found themselves in a confounding situation.

“It was hard on Jeffords’s staff because a lot of them were registered Republicans and active in their party,” Senate Historian Don Ritchie said. “He lost some people. Actually, it was hard on his family; his wife and his son protested a bit about it, as well.”

The switch in political ideology isn’t always the biggest factor in staffers’ decision on whether to stay with their boss. For many, it’s the days and hours of forging relationships within the party ranks that all seem to be for naught when a member announces his shift.

“It’s not an easy situation,” Ritchie said. “All of your contacts have been with one party and you’re used to dealing with it in your home state and dealing with the lobbyists and people who come to visit you. So staff members have to make some decisions, and in some cases they don’t go with the member when the member switches party.”

When Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.) switched from being a Democrat to a Republican in 1994, most of his staff was already in step with the more conservative movement taking hold in the South.

“My staff was elated,” Shelby said. “My switch was probably 13 years in the making. I had a conservative staff.”

Shelby said he doesn’t remember any of his staff members leaving because of his party switch.

“If they had, I wouldn’t have cared,” he said.

Many staffers develop a comfort level with their boss that ultimately determines whether they will stick with him through the change, Ritchie said.

“It’s a very individual case,” he said, “but I do think that people working for a senator, for the most part, really identify with that senator. They’ve been with him day by day, they’ve answered his mail, they’ve dealt with the agony over issues. So they’re willing to cut him some slack, essentially.”

However Specter’s staffers process their boss’s decision, Devendorf warned them against any rash actions.

“It’s kind of a time for introspection,” he said. “If you look in the mirror, and you come to the realization that the reason you’re doing what you’re doing is because of your belief in your boss, because you believe in the senator and what he stands for, you’ve got no reason to leave … because you’ll find he’ll be the same man.”