Collins flack got Capitol Hill start after airing a whimsical thought

Kevin Kelley was on vacation in Washington in April 2005 when he made a comment that changed his future.

Kelley, then a television reporter in Maine, stopped by Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-Maine) Capitol Hill office to say hello to sources.

He wondered aloud to her staffers what it would be like to work there.

“I just happened to say, ‘This seems like it’d be a fascinating job and something I’d like to try one day,’ ” he recalled.

Weeks later, Collins’s office called Kelley to ask whether he was serious.

By July of that year, Kelley was Collins’s newest press secretary.

Kelley, 38, starts the 111th Congress as Collins’s new communications director after having served most recently as the communications director for her reelection campaign.

But in 2005, it was all Kelley could do just to understand his new colleagues and figure out the labyrinthine hallways of the Capitol complex.

“I spent the first year in Washington just trying to learn the language that people and staff speak on the Hill,” he said. “It’s an entirely different language.”

Then there were the winding halls. In the beginning, Kelley relied on the familiarity of his boss, who was a staffer for former Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) before becoming a senator herself.

“For the first several months, I would walk with my boss,” he said. “These buildings are a maze.”

He has since settled into his communications role and relies on his journalism background to get his job done. “Reporters expect and appreciate someone just being honest with them, and that’s what I am with them,” he said.

Collins recently made several other promotions and hires. Jen Burita, 41, her former communications director, is now the deputy chief of staff. Lance Dutson came over from the senator’s reelection campaign, where he was the director of new media, to take on the roles of new-media director and systems administrator in the Senate office. And Jayne McCullough was promoted from deputy office manager to office manager.

Dutson, 35, had an inauspicious start to his online career. He started a technology blog called Maine Web Report but entered hot water when he started looking into the Internet marketing strategies of the state of Maine. He criticized the state’s advertising agency, which later sued him for several million dollars. The issue quickly entered the mainstream media, with opinion coverage (in Dutson’s favor) appearing in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, PBS, Advertising Age and The Associated Press. The lawsuit was dropped a week after it was filed.

Dutson trudged on. His blog continued to pursue policy and ethics issues in the Maine state government.

McCullough, a 27-year-old University of Maine graduate and 2006 alumna of The Hill’s 50 Most Beautiful list, started out on Capitol Hill as an intern for Collins. She’s a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen and with kitchen utensils. She once had a summer job selling knives door to door, and she’s an active baker.

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