Riding the learning curve

Rep. John Sullivan’s (R-Okla.) new staff assistant and scheduler are stepping up to more responsibility.

After a four-month internship in Rep. Sam Graves’s (R-Mo.) office, 24-year-old Liz Lathrop began her first full-time job as Sullivan’s new staff assistant, but not before fumbling through a few interviews.

While interviewing for a job with another congressman, Lathrop was asked what her favorite movie was. Without hesitation, she said “Sweet Home Alabama.” After a pause, the unsatisfied questioner invited her to share her second favorite. Lathrop froze, and her mind went blank. She desperately sought out patriotic movie titles, but to no avail. Finally, she heard herself say: “Adventures in Babysitting.”

She didn’t get that job, but being from Kansas City, Mo., she is happy to be serving citizens of the Midwest.

Lathrop is adapting to the unanticipated power she now wields. She now knows, for example, that she should not press the button underneath her desk unless she wants Capitol Security to come barreling through the door. She added she is also getting used to taking restroom breaks without having to ask permission.

“I’m really nervous,” Lathrop said. “This is my first job, so I don’t want to screw up.”

Lathrop earned an English degree from the University of Kansas. She felt the thrill of contributing to the political process when, as an intern, she helped edit a tax speech for Graves. She didn’t think much of it until she happened to see Graves on C-SPAN delivering the speech on the floor.

“It was amazing,” she said. “That was the first time, really, that I felt I proved myself to the office.”

She said she could see herself eventually writing speeches or doing some other press-related work for public officials. In addition to the satisfaction of public service, Lathrop mentioned another pleasant perk associated with working on Capitol Hill.

“My twin sister is very liberal; I’m very conservative,” she said. “We always have debates, so I’m excited to be more prepared to prove I’m right and she’s wrong.”

Lathrop is filling the vacancy left by John Senger, 23, who was promoted to scheduler and is now getting used to his new location farther back in the office.

“My first day, it was really weird walking past the front desk in the morning,” he said.

Senger, who hails from Tulsa, Okla., interned for Sullivan in the fall of 2005. The next fall, he was brought on as staff assistant even though he had not yet graduated from the University of Oklahoma. Through correspondence courses, he completed his degree in political science earlier this year. Although he had planned to go to law school, working on Capitol Hill has changed his mind.

“This is a huge learning experience on the Hill,” Senger said. “If you truly take advantage of it, it’s just as good, if not better, than a graduate degree.”

Senger attributes the educational atmosphere of the Hill to the people around him each day.

“I’m surrounded by brilliant, intelligent people,” he said. “I learn something from everyone.”

At the same time, Senger is not intimidated. As scheduler, he will communicate regularly with “very influential people,” but he said he will not get nervous.

“Everyone has to put [his or her] pants on one leg at a time, just like me,” he said.

Senger sees himself staying on the Hill for a long time. He enjoys taking on the big issues and searching for realistic solutions to the nation’s problems. Political posturing doesn’t interest him at all.

“[I would rather] cut through the politics, get to the real issue at hand,” he said.