The Capitol Hill experience

From the outside looking in, life on the Hill seems glamorous. Every bus stop, every street corner, every Congressional building is bustling with purpose-driven people who manage to balance a large coffee in one hand, while furiously typing away on their PDA device with the other. Members of Congress or senators alike can be spotted, surrounded by staff and trailed by interns and tourists. So what really goes on inside Capitol Hill? What do these people do? Take a step inside the lives of those who live the Capitol Hill experience every day.

1.  Austin J. Reinshuttle, Special Agent with the U.S. Capitol Police.

Born in Michigan and raised in Virginia, Austin Reinshuttle spent his childhood sneaking around the corners of his house with a self-made badge and a toy gun. He's come a long way from then and has been "living the dream" as Special Agent of the Dignitaries Protection Division since 2003. His job is to protect members of Congress and their families along with members of foreign dignitaries, "so they can fulfill their constitutional duties in a safe and open environment."

After attending the University of North Carolina and majoring in children's education, Reinshuttle worked as a kindergarten teacher. His career began with a chance encounter with a lady buying dog food in the local pet store at which he worked during the weekends.  

"She was paying for her dog food, and I noticed she had a badge in her wallet. I asked her if she was a police officer, and she said she was with the U.S. Capitol Police, so I asked her if they were hiring."

Directed by the lady to the website, Reinshuttle went through the long hiring process — which takes between six months and a year — another six months of training, and then he finally applied to the Dignitaries Protection Division.

There is no doubt Reinshuttle loves his job. The only downside is the long hours, which vary depending on his assignment. The flexibility of work hours takes him away from his new bride, and he acknowledges it takes a "very understanding family, because you can't make up birthdays, anniversaries and Christmases." 

There are perks, such as when Reinshuttle was assigned a post on the platform of the 2009 presidential inauguration ceremony.

"Very few people get to go on the platform,” he said. “Looking out, seeing all the people waving and cheering, it's a moment I will never forget for the rest of my life."

2.  Cole Perryman, Press Secretary for Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.)

Cole Perryman hails from the small town of Oologah, Okla., perhaps better known as the birthplace of Will Rogers. The press secretary for Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.), Perryman got his job through a simple resume drop when he stopped by the congressman’s office during a Washington, D.C., visit to look at apartments.

Perryman attributes the job offer partly to chance and partly to being from the congressional district Boren represents. He also had past experience working in media as the press secretary for Oklahoma’s Department of Transportation.
In describing his job, Perryman said, “It’s about making yourself available and always getting back to people whether or not you have the answer they’re looking for.”

A normal day for a press secretary revolves around keeping up with all outlets of the media. Perryman, with the added challenge of being a “one-man shop,” balances the day between organizing media clips, working with the rest of staff, handling random requests and sometimes even traveling back to Oklahoma’s 2nd congressional district.

A firm believer in cultivating personal relationships with the state and district media, he advises all future press secretaries, “So many times, the focus can be on the Hill, but the congressman really cares about his district, so I reflect that. Ultimately, your district is your bread and butter.”

He will be heading back to his Oklahoma district in October for his ranch wedding with fiancée, Erica Abrams. “There’s no Oklahoma football game that day, so it will be a big deal.”

3. Jenell Brown, Scheduler for Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.)

Jenell Brown initially interned for Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) during graduate school at Northeastern Illinois University. A friend had referred her to a three-month internship that turned into three years of volunteering in campaign work. After graduation, Brown received a job offer working for Davis’s Washington office, so she picked up her life and moved.

“The young, professional world here motivated me to do more,” said Brown.

Nicknamed “the little Oprah” by her friends, Brown described her job as scheduler as being “the first contact between the member and the world.” Brown emphasized the need for patience and — above all — organization as a scheduler.

Apart from scheduling the congressman’s committee hearings, travel events, personal meetings with constituents and photo ops, Brown does much more behind the scenes. Brown’s duties also include making sure the language on any fliers or mailings made public with the congressman’s name on it is approved by the Franking Commission. There is approval from the Ethics Committee to obtain for all travels. There are room requests for town hall meetings to file and absolutely no scheduling conflicts allowed.

In describing the job, Brown said, “I definitely bite the bullet a lot.”

4. Sara Garland, chief of staff for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)

Sara Garland, a wonder woman chief of staff for Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), hangs a sign over her desk that reads, “What if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?” She says it helps her stay grounded and keep a healthy perspective.

Garland definitely knows what she is doing. Having balanced motherhood and jobs in the public and private sector, her Capitol Hill resume is impressive. She’s held various staff positions while working with three different U.S. Senators from North Dakota — Sen. Quentin Burdick (D), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) and Conrad. She is on her second tour as chief of staff with Conrad. 

Garland describes her position as multi-dimensional. The job ranges from overseeing all five offices, maintaining communications with the state leadership, state government, the constituents and sometimes even picking up the phones to answer constituent calls.

“You have to be willing to do any job put in front of you and not be too proud to do anything. I answer the phones — I just did it this morning. If you walk by and it’s ringing, you pick up,” Garland said.

Garland also communicates with other Senate Democratic chiefs of staffs in weekly meetings and attends bipartisan lunches with other chiefs of staffs, as well.

“When I did my first tour here in the late ’80s, early ’90s, we didn’t have that kind of communication among the chiefs of staffs. It’s relatively new, within the last 10 years,” Garland said.

In the midst of the fast-paced life on the Hill, Garland finds time to go to the Senate gym and drives a Mustang convertible, which she refers to as her “first mid-life crisis.” It must remind her of the days she was driven around the high school football field as homecoming queen.

5. Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)

Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) represents Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district and made history as the first immigrant Asian woman to hold a congressional office. Born in Japan, Hirono immigrated to Hawaii when she was 8 and was raised by a hard-working mother who taught her to persevere. Hirono attributes her interest in politics to her college years, during which she protested the Vietnam War with a group of young activists. 

“I realized that I wanted to pursue politics to create real, social changes,” said Hirono, who ran for office 10 years after she ran her first political campaign for another candidate.

Prior to that, Hirono attended Georgetown University Law School “to bring more to the table.”  Because she has personally experienced how quality education brings otherwise unavailable opportunities, she works tirelessly for early learning educational opportunities, such as universal preschool education. Though the six-hour time difference between Washington and Hawaii makes the congresswoman’s day longer than most others, she keeps her schedule filled with personal meetings with constituents, organizations, House votes and more.

For those considering running for an elected position, Hirono advised maintaining a genuine desire to serve. “You will need a guiding principle or philosophy or you are not going to do very well, or serve very well for your constituents,” she said.