Lean job market for Dems on K Street

Greg Nash

Democratic congressional staffers aren’t flocking to K Street in the numbers expected after the midterms.

Lobbying shops, law firms and government relations practices are recruiting former chiefs of staff and senior aides to Democratic lawmakers, but for most staffers the market has not lived up to expectations.

{mosads}“The job market down here is just crawling,” a lobbyist told The Hill.

“A lot of people are kind of in limbo. The Democrat hires hasn’t been as fast and furious as people thought. There hasn’t been the bonanza that we’ve seen in previous years,” the lobbyist added.

Many K Street watchers expected firms to eagerly court Democratic hands when the party took control of the House, but lobbyists say that recruiting blitz hasn’t materialized.

There are a number of factors at play, from K Street scaling back its recruiting of Democratic staffers to the desire among many Democrats to keep working on Capitol Hill.

A big factor that many pointed to is that Republicans still control the White House and Senate. That means a very different job market than in 2009 when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House and flocked to jobs on K Street.

Many important issues are in front of the administration and firms still value recruiting those with impressive GOP connections.

“The downtown play is the administration,” another lobbyist told The Hill, noting that there is “so much at stake with energy agencies, [the U.S. Trade Representative] and [the Department of] Commerce.”

And with a divided Congress and attention already turning to the 2020 presidential election, many are cautious about their hiring.

“The general assumption is the Dems will eat their own and [President] Trump will get another term,” the lobbyist said.

Others said changing expectations explain why lobby and law firms are not recruiting Democrats as heavily as expected. The preference now is for staffers with expertise on particular issues, experience which often comes from being in the majority and passing legislation. Many Democratic staffers have likely spent much or all of their time in the House minority.

“For any firm or company, I think generally these days they do want folks who have some level of subject matter experience,” said Jerome Murray, policy director at Brownstein and previously chief of staff for Del. Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands). “Lobbying is more than just being someone who can open a door or get a client into an office.”

Kai Anderson, CEO of Cassidy & Associates, said he hires with a similar perspective.

“I care much more about, is it somebody who’s been able to accomplish things in their job, whatever their role is,” Anderson told The Hill.

Along those lines, lobbyists noted that some Democratic staffers are actively choosing to stay on Capitol Hill.

When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, “every day someone was sending a goodbye email,” one lobbyist said. “It hasn’t been quite as chaotic.”

The chance to capitalize on their party’s new power and get a taste of life in the majority is a strong draw for many Democratic staffers.

One former aide said working in the majority was an important step to broadening the skill set K Street looks for.

{mosads}“Your boss being in the majority definitely helps. I believe having a subject matter expertise raises your value and that gives you more attention,” a former congressional aide, now working in the private sector, told The Hill. “Being in the majority gives some people the opportunity to really carve out a specialty area to make them better public professionals but also more attractive to the private sector.”

Others also spoke about the opportunities from being a majority staffer.

“I think that Democrats often come to this town because they care about policy and for those who have not been in the majority, this looks like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Anderson said.

Another factor keeping some Democrats off K Street is the potential promise of working for a Democratic president after the 2020 elections.

Some chiefs of staff, in particular, are staying at the Capitol, in hopes they can work for a Democratic administration in two years, sources told The Hill. Others are looking to work at a trade association “to be able to demonstrate that you can work in the trade office or the Department of Commerce” in a Democratic administration, said the former congressional aide who now works in the private sector.

Where K Street is looking to poach Democrats, the recruiting is focusing on top staffers and those from a diverse background.

K Street is under pressure this year to improve its diversity, leading some firms to prioritize hiring women or minorities or those with ties to lawmakers in the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Amazon recently hired LaDavia Drane, who was Rep. Yvette Clark’s (D-N.Y.) chief of staff, and Tony Clair, who was Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s (D-N.C.) chief of staff, to work on diversity issues. Broderick Johnson, who was recently hired as senior of counsel at Covington, worked under former President Obama in multiple roles, including as chairman of the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force.

But that effort could also be tougher for K Street, with the minority caucuses holding a new level of power and influence in the House.

“Trying to attract Latino Democrats to leave the Hill is not going to be as easy now because they’re in the majority and they’re having fun,” explained Bert Gómez, Becker’s senior corporate and government relations director.

Even more telling, Anderson said for the first time in his 20 years in Washington, D.C., he is seeing high-caliber Democrats moving from the Senate to the House chamber so they can work in the majority.

“You can do more in the minority in the Senate than you can in the House. You can do more in the majority in the House than in the minority in the Senate,” he said.

That’s an alluring prospect for many Democratic staffers who in the past might have sought to jump to K Street.

Anderson said many Democrats are just relishing the chance to work on their priorities.

“Now is the chance to do something for the first time where you can actually affect the change that you came here to affect,” he said.

Tags Congress G.K. Butterfield K Street Lobbying Stacey Plaskett

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