As control of the House turns over, young aides perform a familiar shuffle
Republican staffers find a seller’s market
Jessica Kershaw says the lowest point of her last days as a Capitol Hill press secretary came when she turned the key — her key — to Room 1516 in the Longworth House Office Building. “You’re not going to like it,” a custodian said as she opened the door.
The drapes had been pulled down. The chairs and couches where she and her fellow staffers bonded over pizza during latenight floor votes were upturned and in the hallway. Even the Ohio seal was missing.
The 25-year-old aide from Wellington, Ohio, sucked in her breath, put on her best Midwestern game face and gathered the pile of mail on the floor addressed to her boss, Rep. John Boccieri, who in November became a oneterm Democrat.
“I couldn’t let myself cry,” Kershaw recalled. Instead she opened her laptop computer and sent out another round of resumes.
On Monday, as part of a biennial rite for Capitol Hill’s winners and losers, Boccieri’s Washington staff of eight will be swept out as he relinquishes his fifth-floor office (seven aides in his northeast Ohio district office will also lose their jobs). A new crew will move in to work for Rep.-elect James Renacci, a tea-party-backed businessman whose victory over Boccieri helped Republicans gain 63 House seats in November and notch one of the GOP’s biggest wins in generations.
Job insecurity is a fact of life for the 10,000 or so at-will Hill workers who form the backbone of Congress. But the change this year will be especially dramatic: Republicans, as the new House majority, will control not just many more seats but also leadership jobs and two-thirds of the committee staff positions.
An estimated 2,000 jobs will shift from Democratic to Republican hands, from $40,000 schedulers to six-figure committee aides. As a result, Republicans already on the Hill are basking in a seller’s market, while Democrats clamber for a dwindling number of jobs and, in a still-reeling economy, limited options in the private sector.
Lobbying and public relations firms are hiring, but slowly. Nonprofits have downsized. The White House remains in Democratic hands, but with federal spending under scrutiny, an administration job isn’t a fail-safe option.
The staff of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, slated for eradication by the new GOP leadership, packed boxes before Christmas with an uncertain future. “Everything’s up in the air right now,” said Sarah Butler, an aide.
Kershaw networked in the Longworth cafeteria. She and her co-workers commiserated at holiday happy hours, while making sure someone staffed Cubicle No. 8 in the basement space to which outgoing congressmen were relegated during the lameduck session. They shared job leads and support on a Google instant-messaging group they created called Team Boccieri. “Every one of us that gets a job is positive for the next person,” Kershaw said.
So far, three of Boccieri’s 15 aides have found other positions, two as fundraisers off inWashington and one back in Ohio.
Luckier on the other side
The turnabout has been kinder to James Slepian, who was collecting unemployment less than a year ago after running an unsuccessful Senate reelection campaign in Oregon. Slepian, 30, went home to New York to do legal work for his father and then was hired last spring to run Renacci’s campaign.
Slepian is now Renacci’s chief of staff and the nerve center of his hiring operation. He makes $120,000 a year and just signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment in the Jefferson at Capitol Yards, a swanky new building near Nationals Park.
“Considering where I was two years ago, I never thought I would be in this position,” he said. “I’ve got 1,000 resumes coming in from all over the place. I have people friending me on Facebook because they want a job. I’m just slammed.”
Before Christmas, Slepian was desperate to hire a scheduler. After five candidates failed to wow him, he pinned his hopes on a 2008 University of Maryland graduate. Michelle Runk, who had been a scheduler for John McCain’s presidential campaign. She arrived for her interview poised in black high-heeled boots and pearls.
Runk said after her interview with Slepian that she hoped the job would help launch her into a more political role. “It’s the kind of a job that’s a foot-in-the-door situation,” she said.
By that evening, Runk was hired. Four aides down, four to go.
Options for Democrats
Some Democrats will also get lucky. A good word from his now former boss helped Garrett Donovan, who was chief of staff for Rep. Ron Klein, a two-term Florida Democrat who lost his reelection bid. At an orientation for new House members, Klein met Bill Keating, an incoming Massachusetts Democrat who was eager to hire a chief of staff.
“I got wind he was looking, and I approached him,” Klein recalled. “I took the chance to tell him what Garrett’s skills were: efficiency, no drama, loyal, long hours, big commitment to the cause.” Donovan got the job. It looks good, too, for the dozen Democrats on the global warming panel, who are hoping to be absorbed into the Natural Resources Committee.
For those looking off the Hill, there are jobs, just not a lot of them— and itmay take months to land one. This was the wisdom imparted to about 200 men and women at a recent job fair in downtown Washington for people seeking jobs with trade groups.
The experts urged full disclosure of their political leanings. “If I say I worked for Carolyn Maloney, that gives me street cred in the women’s community,” said Lisa Maatz, a lobbyist for the American Association of University Women, referring to the New York Democrat.
A hopeful question came from Roxanne Yaghoubi, a 27-year-old Hill aide for a departing New York Democrat. “Once you’re in the association world, is it easy to go back to the Hill?” Yaghoubi asked. Absolutely, she was told. Kershaw has a second interview on Monday for a position as press secretary for an incoming House Democrat. If she doesn’t get the job, returning to Ohio isn’t an option: the Rust Belt is hemorrhaging jobs.
She hasn’t run into Slepian since the campaign. When it happens, if it does, she’ll be cordial.
“ They won the race,” Kershaw said.
Above, James Slepian, right, chatted with his new boss, Rep.-elect James Renacci (R-Ohio), last month. As Renacci’s new chief of staff, Slepian had a busy December, interviewing candidates to fill other jobs in the office.