Staff assistant relishes McDermott’s stories

Laura Berntsen, a new staff assistant in Rep. Jim McDermott’s (D-Wash.) office, grew up in a home where McDermott was often a topic of conversation.

“His name was a household thing,” she said. “My parents are both in the medical profession and pretty liberal, and healthcare is Jim’s big issue.”

Given her family’s table talk, it’s only natural that the 21-year-old from Seattle now works in McDermott’s office. Berntsen said of her position, “I like the front desk because there, you’re a filter for everything and everyone who walks through that door.”

Berntsen served as her high school’s president of the Junior Statesmen of America, an organization that allows students to serve as mock congressmen, and first met McDermott when he spoke to the club. She began working in McDermott’s home office during her first year at the University of Washington, where she is majoring in political science.

However, Berntsen didn’t expect to be working in D.C. this early in her career. In fact, she has yet to receive her B.A.; she currently is taking online classes and plans to return to Seattle to complete her final semester in August.

“I’d wanted to finish school first,” Berntsen said, but when the former staff assistant was promoted and the job was offered to her, the decision was obvious.

“I couldn’t really turn it down,” she said.

Berntsen quickly made plans to leave Seattle and came to D.C. on the Friday before she was to begin work — never having been to the city before and with neither housing nor friends.

“I was really lucky that Craigslist worked for me!” she said, referring to the popular classifieds website through which she was able to secure a shared apartment just off Dupont Circle with a roommate she likes.

So far, Berntsen loves being in the District. She is especially surprised that it’s “a lot younger than I expected,” she said, explaining that West Coast denizens often perceive D.C. as “stuffy and old.”

Berntsen’s favorite D.C. moment occurred at dinner over Salvadoran food with McDermott and other staff members.

“Just hearing his stories, it’s amazing,” she said of McDermott’s descriptions of fellow legislators. “You know, he’d tell stories about various personalities, who’s liked, who’s not, and it was amazing. He’s been here forever, so he really knows the members.

“You see them on paper but don’t always know anything about them,” Berntsen said. “And now I’m part of that.”