Teacher, aide, candidate

To others, Ed Potosnak’s storyline may look simple: “Hill staffer runs for Congress.” But Potosnak argues there’s more to him than that.

Potosnak is a former high school science teacher, small-business owner, handyman, Einstein Fellow alumnus, theater director — and, yes, congressional staffer.

He argues his real-world experience complements his legislative know-how.

“I don’t really see myself as [just] a Hill staffer,” Potosnak says during an interview at the Così coffee shop near the House of Representatives. “I see myself as all these other things.”

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The 37-year-old New Jersey native left Rep. Mike Honda’s (D-Calif.) office last month to run for his home state’s 7th congressional district. 

Dressed in a dark-gray suit and a striped lavender tie, he returned to Washington recently — after having moved back to central New Jersey — for meetings and other business to get his fledging campaign under way. 

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity for someone like myself with real-world experience,” he says. “I see that as a really positive thing.”

Potosnak is a newcomer to national politics. But he doesn’t seem daunted by the hurdles that obstruct his path to elected office. It is not yet known whether Potosnak will have opponents in the Democratic primary, but freshman Rep. Leonard Lance (R) is running for reelection, and the district is considered safely Republican in many political reports.

Three years ago, Potosnak was a happy chemistry teacher at Bridgewater-Raritan High School in central Jersey. He loved science growing up and, after considering both law and business tracks while an undergraduate at Rutgers University, decided teaching chemistry would be the best fit for him. He earned a master’s degree at Rutgers and spent the next eight years in the classroom. 

During that time he built up other aspects of what he’d call his “real-world” résumé. Potosnak opened a small home-improvement business.

“I was always fixing thing for myself in my house,” he explains. “And so I [thought], ‘You can make money doing this. You have talent in this area.’ And so I did.”

His projects have ranged from fixing broken showers to installing kitchen cabinets. He kept up the work after he moved to Washington for his congressional job, but the business is now on hold because of his campaign.

Potosnak also directed six musicals at the high school, including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Anything Goes,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “The Wizard of Oz.” He was a performer as a teenager — his first role was one of the snow children in “Carousel” — and remembers his most inspirational teacher being his choir teacher. (Potosnak went on to sing in the Rutgers glee club and, as an adult, with both the Riverside Choral Society in New York and the Washington Men’s Camerata.)

Potosnak shook up his routine in the summer of 2006 when he decided to enroll in a policy institute at George Washington University. Prior to that, he says both his interest and involvement in politics and policy was limited. He had become familiar with education policy as someone who was directly affected by President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind law and both the teacher qualifications and standardized-test requirements it put into place, but he hadn’t otherwise given much thought to the people who were setting those policies or the process that created them.

That changed that summer. He met a wide variety of policymakers at the institute and was finally able to put a face to the national edicts that he as a teacher had to live with.

The people he met “got involved to make [the policy] better, and it really intrigued me,” he says.

It intrigued him enough to propel him to look for ways he could become more involved in policymaking. He found the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program, which places science, technology and math teachers into policy fellowships, and by the fall of 2007, he was working in Honda’s office as a legislative aide.

Over the next two years he burrowed into policy work, focusing especially on education issues. But he also spent time observing the lawmakers around him and began to ask himself: Could I do that?

“They’re balancing very difficult issues, in a lot of ways working together with people with various perspectives to improve the policies,” he says. “And I started to realize that’s something — with my education background, I had a small business … I have these different life experiences that I think would help to round me out to be the kinds of members that I really appreciate, that I see taking an active role to deliver sound policy.”

He asked for a meeting with Honda to tell him he had decided to run for Congress, and the congressman was caught off guard.

“He was a little taken aback,” Potosnak says of his boss’s reaction. “He’s very thoughtful, and he said, ‘It makes sense.’ He could see the different parts of my background that could really be a benefit in Congress.”

Honda has thrown his full support behind his former employee.

“A teacher like me, it was clear that Ed … was fast filling my educator shoes at an impressive rate,” Honda said in an e-mailed statement. “Knowing that Ed will legislate like he educates, New Jersey’s 7th will be one lucky district.”

Potosnak isn’t the first congressional staffer to run for the House — and might not be the only one this election cycle. Princella Smith, the communications director for Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), has said she is considering running for the seat Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) left open with his retirement. Many members, like Reps. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Pete Olson (R-Texas), Jo Bonner (R-Ala.) and Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) were Capitol Hill staffers before winning election to Congress.

“By working here, you know you need to do something exciting,” Ryan said of his time as a staffer before he ran for the seat he now occupies.

Potosnak says the thing he misses most about teaching is his students, and he sees himself one day returning to the classroom. Though he likely needs no reminder of this first love, he got one at a recent Democratic National Committee meet-and-greet organized by Honda, one of the committee’s vice chairmen.

Potosnak looked over to see two young faces he recognized but couldn’t quite place. He then realized they were two of his students from Bridgewater-Raritan who had since graduated from college and moved to Washington for work. They found out about the event through Facebook.

“That was a treat for me,” he says.

In many ways, Potosnak is back behind the teacher’s desk, or in the director’s seat, or managing his small business. He sees his new role as candidate as an amalgamation of these real-world experiences.

“I’m guiding the ship, setting the destination, looking to people who believe in where we’re going to help get there.”