Wisdom for first-year staffers

Every day, new staffers on Capitol Hill try to figure out how to stand out in a sea of black and gray suits. Whether it’s strange acronyms or the maze of underground tunnels, starting a new job on Capitol Hill can be intimidating.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), once a staff assistant in former Rep. Don Edwards's (D-Calif.) office, had plenty of wisdom to share to help first-year staffers shake their nerves and make a good impression. Dues paid and now an employer herself, Rep. Lofgren outlined some of the key characteristics she looks for in employees.

"We want really smart people," Lofgren said.

However, brains alone cannot replace those with a particular savvy for how government works. Lofgren also suggested "self-important people" are less than impressive as staffers. In her office, Lofgren works hard to hone staffers that demonstrate a "passion for the public."

Lofgren also learned quickly during the '70s in her first stint on the Hill that long hours were part and parcel of the thrill and honor to serve her country. Staffers shouldn't be shy about arriving early and can expect to stay late.

When it comes to dressing the part, most top dogs would agree a professional appearance is important. Lofgren contends that despite brutal D.C. summers, committed employees will keep up a professional presentation. While suits are not expected during scorching summer months, Lofgren maintains that the office can't be confused with the beach — and operates on a “no flip-flops” policy.

Rob Ellsworth, chief of staff for Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), on the other hand, values brains even if dressed in a pair of jeans.

"I don't care if my staff are wearing jeans and a T-shirt as long as they are smart, well-prepared and bring something to the debate,” Ellsworth said. “What good is an expensive suit if the staffer doesn't know what they are talking about?"
Underdressed or overdressed, getting right to work and understanding the issues quickly are mainstays of most positions on and off Capitol Hill. But keeping up on hourly news updates is a necessary skill. The day begins and ends with a review of the news.

Congressional office coffee tables are home to numerous news sources, and Ellsworth reads just about everything on which he can get his hands.

“It is dangerous to only read what you agree with,” Ellsworth said. From the Washington Post to the Examiner, successful staffers read them all.

Most congressional staff members are consumed by politics, suggested Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).

“Their work and their hobby become one,” he said.

Even after work hours, when the business jacket comes off, staffers continue to represent their boss in everything they do, Lofgren said. Ellsworth said this attitude translates into respect for the views of the congressman they represent.

“A good congressional staffer always knows whose name is on the door,” Ellsworth said.

Political aspirants beware — balancing your own aspirations with those of your boss can be complicated. It comes as a small relief that there are 534 other offices juggling the same challenges; getting to know the members of those offices can serve as a major advantage.

Mat Sillin, communications director for Coffman recommends reaching out to other offices on both sides of the aisle.

“There is a direct correlation between how many people you know and how successful you are. Having strong contacts is invaluable,” he said.

Mike Sommers, policy director for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), said making connections and working hard are just as important.

“You are either networking or not working,” he said.

Establishing a relationship with co-workers can sometimes be neglected in what new employees often perceive to be a “dog-eat-dog” town. Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) recognizes the importance of a team atmosphere in a congressional office.

“Working such long hours so close together, you have to get along,” he said.

Minnick similarly suggests new employees follow the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

“You never know, the person sitting next to you today might be your boss a few years later,” he cautioned.

The small size of most Congressional offices amplifies the team spirit, said Sillin. In fact, more often than not, lasting relationships are made on the Hill. After working his way up from entry-level intern to policy director, Sommers credits his mentor for some of his success.

“You don’t move up from those positions unless you have a mentor. Everyone on the Hill has been mentored by someone,” Sommers said.

He would not be where he is today without the help and guidance of his mentor, Barry Jackson, chief of staff for Boehner, who hired Sommers in 1996.

“He has been my mentor and friend ever since,” Sommers said.

Beyond the conservative dress and the networking skills, lay the endless possibilities that come with a job on Capitol Hill.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), elected as the first woman to the position, said, “My advice to young people working on Capitol Hill is to know their power, with their idealism and their intellect, they can help build a better future for America. With their service to our nation, they strengthen our democracy.”