Personal connections, political yearnings lead staffers to Capitol Hill

Many congressional staffers dreamed of working on Capitol Hill when their peers were fretting about dates for their sophomore semi-formal. Others took a more circuitous route to careers in the public sector. But a small sample of the thousands of schedulers, press officers and legislative aides on whom members of Congress rely reveals they all developed a taste for politics at a young age.

As a fledgling television news reporter, 24-year-old Catherine Mortensen conducted her first interview with then-Rep. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.).

“Thinking back, it’s embarrassing,” said Mortensen, now 41 and the communications director for Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). “I’m not sure I was polished.”

She didn’t let beginner’s nerves get to her though. Passionate about exposing corruption in politics, she worked as a journalist for several years. Eventually, frustration with the medium of broadcast news and a desire to be more politically active led to her run for city council in Canyon City, Colo., where she served from 2003 to 2007.

Mortensen planned to spend one year getting her master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School before returning to Colorado with her husband and children to seek election to the state legislature. But Harvard left her with more than just a degree. Student loan obligations made the prospect of a low-paying position less desirable. After snagging a spot in the office of her congressman, she packed up the family in January and headed for Capitol Hill.

A recent addition to the ranks of congressional staffers, Mortensen still considers Colorado her home, and hopes to run for state office in the future. “We need more women to run for office. We need more younger people, although I’m not sure that I’m so young anymore,” she said. “We need more Republicans.”

Joon Suh is another new face among House staffers. The 27-year-old started his first day as a legislative correspondent in Rep. Artur Davis’s (D-Ala.) office during the last week of May. Suh, who has an MBA as well as a master’s in public administration, spent the last three years working for a political polling firm.

“I always wanted to do something a little more substantive and policy-based,” Suh said of his move. “I felt like this was my eventual destination all along.” He had some familiarity with government work, having held a job in the Alabama Legislature during graduate school.

Suh is not making many plans for the future. “I know a lot of people on the Hill are ambitious,” he said. “I’m in the minority of people that are just glad to be here.”

Brian Clifford, the minority subcommittee staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight, is also right where he wants to be. “This is exactly the kind of job I want,” the New York City native said. “I’m a government junkie.”

Clifford came to Capitol Hill in April 1999 to work for Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.). He’s been with Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, for the last 18 months. He doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon. “I’m sort of a lifer,” he said.

Clifford, who earned a master’s in public policy from American University, is pleased to be working in the Senate as opposed to the House. “This is one place where Republicans have some say,” he said. “I like to be able to make an impact.”

Degrees in public policy and any public administration are common among congressional staffers. Cody Stewart, 32, is working toward getting his graduate degree from Johns Hopkins. He fits his education in when he is not busy with caucus work for Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah). “It’s more like a 10-year plan,” Stewart said of his drawn-out academic pursuits.

The Utah native spent time working on Capitol Hill after college, but then returned to his home state. He spent the last few years working as a consultant.

Stewart enjoyed his work in Utah, but his respect for Bishop led him back to Capitol Hill. “It didn’t make sense for me to come back from a financial, lifestyle, or family purpose. But I’ve grown close to Mr. Bishop over the last couple of years,” he said. “We were on the same softball team.”

A sense of respect forged on the playing field may keep Stewart away from his home state, but others were determined to make it to D.C.

Sarah Bal, a constituent correspondent to Hawaii’s Rep. Mazie Hirono (D), spent her life in the island state and Southern California before taking up her current position last year. Bal, 24, worked at a think tank, at the Hawaii Legislature and as an intern for Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) before landing her current gig.

Bal was persistent in her quest for a spot in Hirono’s office. “I kind of just kept harassing her,” she said, laughing.

For those who aspire to serve their elected officials as Bal once did, Brian Clifford offered some advice. “Start at the bottom,” he said. “That’s the easiest way to break into the Hill.”

And it can’t hurt to play centerfield.