from the valley to the hill (part 3)

I held my breath as the Chief of Staff said the following: “Do you remember how I told you I would call you if we had any other openings?  Well, we have another opening for Legislative Assistant.  We would like to offer you a job if you are interested.”

“Yes, I accept!” I exclaimed with excitement.  I jotted down some additional information from him, and then hung up the phone.

I sat there in stunned silence for a few minutes, reveling in what had just happened.  I couldn’t believe it.  I was officially going to work on Capitol Hill!   Gratitude and amazement were the emotions I felt in that moment.

A few weeks later, with some sadness, I said goodbye to my CWA family and especially my boss who taught me everything I knew, and headed up the Hill for my first day on the job.

The first day of my new job I showed up early, wearing my best suit.  I said hello to the receptionist and then headed to my office cubicle.  I noticed how tiny the “ledge shop” (short for Legislative Shop, what some people call it) really was.  Offices on the “House side” are quite small.

I sat behind my desk with an open computer just blinking at me.  It occurred to me that I had no idea what to do.  When my direct boss arrived I went right in to see him.  I needed to be trained!

“Good morning!” I began with a smile.  “Great to see you!”  We made small talk for a few moments, until I just couldn’t stand it anymore, until I sheepishly admitted, “So….how do I be a Legislative Assistant?”

He proceeded to tell me that the Legislative Assistant, or LA, was charged with keeping our Congresswoman up to speed on all the areas of legislation we were responsible for, which included our recommendations on how she should vote on bills or amendments that came up for a vote on the House floor.  In addition, I needed to write floor speeches, respond to constituents, and meet with lobbyists as well as folks from her home district.

“It’s sink or swim around here,” he said with a wink.  Then he added, “Don’t worry.  You’ll be fine.”

I went back to my desk and looked at the clock.  My official “training” had lasted only 25 minutes.

I got to work!

Within the first few days I noticed that nobody micro-managed me or checked in on anything I was doing.  The leadership just trusted the staff and everybody did their own thing.  Within the first few weeks I wrote a floor speech for the Congresswoman that she read on the House floor without any changes.  She was so impressed with the speech that she took me out to the House Dining Room for lunch to celebrate.  “I never read floor speeches without major edits.  Keep up the good work Heather!” was basically what she said to me. This was awesome because she was a really impressive person. She eventually went on after Congress to found an organization called Shared Hope International whose mission it is to rescue children from sex trafficking (www.sharedhope.org).

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Within the first few months, I also learned several other things about working on the Hill.  Here are just a few of them:

  • It wasn’t as “fancy” and “professional” as I had imagined.  Sure, everyone wore suits and worked hard, but their attitude and demeanor was much more laid-back and chill than I would’ve thought.   Our office was a lot like a family, with love and affection between all of us, and with respect and admiration for our boss.  What seemed so formal on the outside was quite laid back and informal on the inside.  There was a lot of joking and carrying on about all kinds of stuff.  Some of the ladies and I would discuss our crushes on various members of Congress, or gossiped about some of the odd things that Members would do.  For example, with the influx of the 1994 Members, there were several of them who would sleep in their offices every night just to save “taxpayer dollars.”  Apparently, one Member who slept in his office was seen walking through the Halls of Power one morning in his bathrobe after his shower.  Eww.
  • Working on the Hill is 90% grunt work.  Most of the time I was behind a desk, doing regular desk work like going through my huge pile of mail, writing letters to constituents, attempting to keep up to speed on my “issues” (legislative portfolio), attending numerous meetings, trying to figure out how to advise my Member on how to vote, and keeping up with the House floor and what they were doing.  Oh, and back then staffers mostly dealt with snail mail and the phone rather than email, so I was constantly writing letters and making calls to the many constituents who wrote in to voice their concerns or approval to my Congresswoman.  And somehow those black helicopter/implanted chip people found me at my new job and I had to take calls from them too.   🙂
  • Working on the Hill 10% glory.  A small portion of my job that was truly fun.  For example, occasionally I would I would spot a movie star walking through the Halls or at one of the many evening receptions.  I can neither confirm or deny that I once rode an elevator with Ben Affleck, saw Harrison Ford sing Happy Birthday to a staffer two feet away from me, got within five feet of Kelly Preston and just stared at her, got within 20 feet of Hugh Jackman and just stared at him, and met Christian/famous singer Steven Curtis Chapman, who performed a concert for a small group of Members and staff.  I can also state “for the record” that I once played softball with Vice President Joe Biden (he was a Senator back then).  He actually hit quite well and was a super nice and friendly guy.  Those were the fun moments of life on the Hill!
  • The other “glory” aspect is that you feel like you have some level of authority and influence to get things done and make a real difference!  I will talk about that more in my next and final post.
  • Lastly, faith is alive and well on Capitol Hill.  Many of the members and their staff are strong Evangelical Christians and/or Catholics.  I’m sure other faiths are represented as well.  These Members along with their staff have a strong faith that drives them to make meaningful policy changes for our country.

Several months later, my Congresswoman ran for a Senate seat in her state and lost, so I was again out of job. You have no idea what it is like on election night watching TV wondering if you are about to lose your job. Our office family had to go our separate ways .

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Because I had some free time I decided to finish my Masters Degree.  Due to the recommendation of a friend (remember my first post about rule number one — “who you know?”) I was able to get an internship with a Senator’s office.  It felt like a step back for me to go from Legislative Assistant to part-time intern, but I thought that one foot in the door was better than no foot at all. Very soon after I accepted a job as a Legislative Correspondent, which is the position just below LA.  Again, it was a step down, but I attacked the job with gusto.  Although Legislative Correspondent was a good place to start, I didn’t want to end up there permanently so I had an “off the record” conversation with another staffer.  I told her of my desire to become a LA for this particular Senator, and I was surprised at her honesty.  She told me that I didn’t not want to work for this office because “the good legislative ideas get “torpedoed” by the leadership, the Chief of staff is strange, and the Senator calls his wife from the Senate floor and asks her he should vote!!”

“Wait,” I asked.  “I thought that the Senator’s staff was supposed to advise him on how to vote?”  She said “yes, they do but he calls his wife as he heads down to the Senate floor.  His wife tells him how to vote!”

Wow!!

“You don’t want to work here, Heather.”  She said candidly.

Now I was at a crossroads in my career.  Stay in a “safe place” and continue on with this Senator whom I most likely would not be able to work with nor respect.  Or take a risk and venture out with another member of Congress?

Stay tuned for the conclusion of From the Valley to the Hill. 

 

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From the valley to the hill (part 2)

So there I was, training Miss (southern state) USA to do the job that I should’ve received. Every day I felt like I was eating a HUGE slice of Humble Pie as I patiently worked with her and taught her everything I knew.  I had to constantly swallow my pride and pray daily that I would be helpful and kind to her.  I also felt like this was some kind of a test, and I was determined to pass, even if it was just a matter of sheer willpower.  The test was from God, and I felt like He was asking me: “can you trust me?  Can you choose to be humble and kind?”  Over time, Miss southern state USA and I became great friends and we both opened up to each other about our lives, and I was actually glad that we shared an office as I really started to like her as a person.  Slowly, my jealousy/comparison towards her faded away.  I came to the conclusion that it was not God’s plan for my life to get  that lobbyist job at CWA.  Maybe God had something else planned for me. IMG_9548_3

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I also decided to face the comments from my boss as to why I didn’t get the job in the first place. Even though I had the experience that Miss southern state USA lacked, I knew my boss was right about her other comments.  I didn’t dress very professionally and I did tend to ramble on (note to self, prepare 4 more blog posts on this topic).  🙂 Even though I was only making $22,000 a year, I decided to go out and buy some suits (not swim) that were a lot more professional than the long, flowing sundresses that I would normally wear.  I started to catch myself when I was speaking and tried to “bottom line” the things I would say.  As to the comments about poise and confidence, I knew that was a symptom to a deeper problem, so I prayed about that. In so many words, God showed me that my identity, the core of who I was, was not in the correct place. In fact, it was in two incorrect places.  First, I determined my sense of worth by what others thought of me.  If they liked me and approved of me, then I felt good about myself and felt that I had value. Secondly, my identity was in “being successful” at my job.  I could write an entire blog post on my identity being in my career, and maybe I will someday, but the ‘bottom line’ is that I needed to put my identity in what God thought of me, namely that I was his daughter, He loved me, He would never leave me, and He had a plan for my life.  He would guide and shepherd my career, and I could trust in Him.  A job could change, but the fact that He loved me would not.

About the time of this spiritual transformation, something very odd happened. One night, I had a dream.  Now, normally I never dream, and this one was very unusual. I had a dream about working for a specific member of Congress – a specific Congresswoman to be precise.

As I was mentioning this over lunch with a group of lady friends at CWA, one of them piped up and said “hey, I know someone at the Congresswoman’s office. His name is Erik. You should give him a call and see if he has a job opening!”

Even though I wasn’t looking to leave CWA, I decided to give him a call. This is how it went: “Hey Erik (not my husband Erik). This is Heather.  So and So, a mutual friend with whom I work,  said I should call you.  I am calling because, I know this sounds crazy, but I had dream about working for your office and I was wondering if you had any job openings?”

I waited with baited breath, wondering if he would think I was a nut job about to start into the black helocopters.

After a long pause, he said “it’s funny you should be calling me. We DO have a job opening. It’s for a Legislative Assistant on social issues.  Send me your resume over right now and I will get you an interview!”

I couldn’t believe it! The job sounded perfect for me!  If this guy kept his word, I would have an interview to work as a staffer on Capitol Hill!

I quickly sent him my resume and waited for the phone to ring. Erik kept his word and I went in for an interview a few days later.  The funny thing is that I really had no huge ambitions to work on the Hill.  I was perfectly content to spend the next several years working with “outside groups” to pass legislation and to influence Federal policy.  Basically, I was content to stay on the outside.  Now I had a chance to become a real “insider.”  But was this what I wanted?

I had three interviews; first with the Legislative Director (LD), then a few days later with the Chief of Staff (CoS), and then I had THE BIG interview with Congresswoman herself.   The four of us met a few days later at the House Dining Room over lunch.  Now here is where I am going to be completely honest with you.  The boss lady was an amazing Congresswoman but the interview did not go that well because there were a lot of awkward silences over lunch.  It turns out the Congresswoman was not much of a small talker and the CoS and LD didn’t contribute much either.  It was a long, awkward, quiet, strange “interview lunch” where the Congresswoman would ask me a question, I would answer it, and then she would literally say nothing for several moments.  I’m not super great with awkward silences, and since I felt like I had to impress them and sell myself, I began to force small talk in between questions.  I felt uncomfortable and fidgety and nervous the entire time and I kept thinking to myself “there is no way I am going to get the job. This interview sucks.”

After the ‘awesome’ interview ended and we were all in the elevator heading back towards daylight, the Congresswoman turned toward me and asked me a very simple, direction question: “so tell me about your Hill experience.”

Too bad this was about the very worst question she could have asked me.

‘Ummmm….I have none’ I thought to myself. But you’re not supposed to say that.  You’re supposed to say something that sounds really good and impressive in that moment.  But honestly, since I’m not a particularly cool person, I just blurted out my most honest answer.

“Uh, I actually don’t have any Hill experience.”

Really. That’s what I said.  That’s all I had.  No Hill experience and my new suit.

The CoS swooped in to rescue me and said “this is true. However, Heather has worked at CWA for two years in Legislation and she has PAC experience and blah blah blah blah” about all the other experience I had.

The Congresswoman, being the no-nonsense person she was, who was also very good at bottom lining, then said: “well, you must be pretty good then. Because it’s between you and the other girl. And the other girl has two years of Hill experience.  My staff rated you two equally, so you must be pretty good.”  After that, she abruptly turned and got off the elevator.  And that was the end of my interview.

I’ve never felt more uncertain after an interview as I did after that one in particular. But since I wasn’t particularly “looking” to work on the Hill, I thought that I had nothing to lose.

A few days later the call came, and the CoS informed me that I didn’t get the job, the other gal with experience did, but he told me that if they had any openings in the future, he would give me a call.

I wasn’t overly deflated because deep in my heart I was not emotionally ready to leave CWA. Despite getting passed over, I still loved it there and had many relationships that I didn’t want to lose.

However, after several weeks, something inside of me changed and I found myself ready to leave CWA and praying that I would get a call from that same Hill office, offering me a job. I didn’t think I had a very good chance to get that call as I didn’t think they would have another opening so soon.  But after all of my lessons in humility and my self-identity, I was finally ready to leave CWA.

And then one day a few weeks later, the phone did ring. On the other end of the line was the CoS for the Congresswoman.  He said “Hey Heather!  Do you have a minute?  We need to talk.”

I looked over at Miss southern state USA and held my breath as I said: “I sure do.”

His next few words would literally change the trajectory of my career going forward.

From the valley to the hill (part 1)

When I first moved to D.C. in the summer of 1994 right after I graduated college, I had two things working against me: first, I didn’t have a real job, and secondly, I didn’t have a clue.

What I did have, however, was an unpaid internship at GOPAC — a political action committee. Considering it was the fall of 1994, it was an exciting time to work in Washington DC as a young conservative.

But first, a quick back-story. I was raised by a single working mother in Syracuse NY (Onondaga Valley) and experienced a hard yet typical semi-dysfunctional childhood.  Besides my uncle, nobody from my family had ever received a four year college degree.  I was determined to be the second person to go to college and “make something of myself.”  And actually, getting my four year degree wasn’t good enough for me so I immediately enrolled at George Mason to get my Masters degree.  Why all the ambition?  Looking back, I was an insecure young girl who was running away from the disappointments and dysfunction of my childhood, trying to prove it to myself that I had intrinsic value.  I was determined to “be successful” and “show everyone.”  I wasn’t really sure what I was trying to “show” them but it had something to do with being successful all on my own with no outside help.  As a Christian, I also wanted to make an impact for God and for our country at the same time.

When I started to apply for a job in D.C., I was quite prideful about it. Now keep in mind, my pride had a foundation of childhood insecurity rather than a huge ego/raw arrogance angle.  Nonetheless, it was still pride.  I remember my cover letters being over-the-top confident.  Phrases such as “more than qualified” and “incredibly experienced” and “extraordinarily hard working” filled the first page that a potential employer would read.  I was waiting tables at Uncle Julio’s Rio Grande in Reston, VA at the time, and I was sure, actually over-the-top confident, that I would be getting a call any second from a potential employer.

As my internship was ending, GOPAC actually offered me a job as Executive Assistant. I declined because I didn’t think the job was “good enough” for me.  (Huge mistake, please see point number two above.) After several months of waiting tables and putting in my amazing resume and cover letter all over Capitol Hill (and to several other outside organizations), I still had no “real” job.  I was slowly learning one the biggest lessons that a new kid could learn in D.C.: in order to get a job, it was all about two things: who you knew, and experience.  Unfortunately, I had neither.  The months went by while I continued to wait tables.  I was desperate and felt like a “loser” who “couldn’t make it on her own.”  All of my dreams of “making a real impact” came crashing down, much like a dropped tray filled with food and dishes at the restaurant where I worked.

That’s when I decided to get serious with God. I prayed and asked the Lord why I wasn’t getting a job.  He answered me, in so many words, and told me that I had two problems: first, I was prideful.  Secondly, I was trusting only in myself and my own human effort.  He wanted me to be humble, and to trust in Him.  That time of prayer was a complete turning point for me.  I repented of my prideful, arrogant attitude, asked God to guide all of my steps going forward, and of course revamped all of those crappy cover letters that got me nowhere.

Wouldn’t you know it…after a few weeks I got my first official part-time job. Although it was only 20 hours per week, it was an excellent start.  The funny part was that I got the job not based on anything I did, it was really just a gift from the Lord.  Basically, I struck up a conversation at CPAC with a nice young gal who worked for a political action committee and we hit it off immediately. She then offered me the job.  And that’s the amazing story of how I got my first real part-time job, right there.  I didn’t even have to show her my cover letter.  🙂

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After a few months of working with her, I was told that the job was ending because funding had run out. Almost immediately after that I was hired as a part-time unpaid intern for another outside group.  To go from a “real job” back to “just an intern” felt like a step backward for me, but again, I had learned my lesson to be patient and to trust in God, so I went with it.

Then IT happened — within a few weeks, I was offered my FIRST OFFICIAL FULL TIME JOB IN MY COLLEGE MAJOR at Concerned Women for America. My official job title was “Correspondence Coordinator” and I was SO excited!  I had officially “made it” in DC all by myself (with God’s help, of course)!  Hooray!! I beamed with happiness as I drove my 1982 Toyota Tercel around town.

My enthusiasm quickly faded however, once I got into the job itself. It was basically a crap job where I answered phones all day and dealt with difficult people who wanted to be off the mailing list; or they had a new address, or they wanted to complain about not getting something they had ordered.  Plus I got the nut cases who wanted to talk about black helicopters and government conspiracies like implanted chips (tracking chips, not the potato kind).  The job was a two person job but only one person did it, and that person was me.

I loved working for CWA, however. There were a great group of wonderful women (and a few men) and I quickly became friends with all of them.  Because of what God had already taught me, my pride was checked at the door and I did my work with excellence, determination, AND humility.  I was even awarded Employee of the Month once or twice (wait, is that bragging?). At one point I was rewarded with a whopping 10% raise, unheard of according to my boss.  Awesomeness!!!  Until I remembered I was only making 20k per year and would now be making $22k.  But who was thinking about money?  I was just glad I had a “real” job.

After about a year as Correspondence Queen (as I dubbed myself), I was promoted into the Legislative Department, which was my ultimate goal. I was so excited to finally be “making an impact” at my “first real job in D.C.” in the specific space that I truly wanted.  Woo hoo!!!

After about a year of assisting the Executive Director of Legislation and doing basically any and all things associated with legislation, a job opened up in our department for Legislative Coordinator, which was one step up from my current position. The Legislative Coordinator was actually a lobbyist who would go to Capitol Hill and persuade Members and staffers alike to do what CWA wanted/hoped for/felt was best for our country. I was all over it and felt fairly confident (in a humble way, of course) that I had a good shot at it.  There were other interviewers for the job as well, including a young woman who was actually Miss ________ USA.  Really, she was a beauty queen and had won a state title.  She was a beautiful young woman and very poised and professional looking for her young age.  She had a killer figure and wore very expensive suits.  However, she had no experience whatsoever in legislation so I assumed (naively) that she wouldn’t get the job. How could she? She had no experience.  Plus she didn’t know anybody.

To make a long story short, Miss USA got the job. I was shocked and deflated!  When I asked my boss why I didn’t get the job, she gave me some hard truth.  She told me that Miss USA had poise and confidence that I lacked.  And that there were two other reasons I did not get the job: my appearance (I didn’t dress very professionally) and my communication skills (I didn’t come to my points very quickly and tended to ramble on and on).

Ouch.

All of my childhood insecurities came crashing down on me and I cried all the way home during my evening commute.

But then something else happened. When Miss USA started the job, which was awkward in and of itself since we shared an office together, my boss informed me that Miss USA needed to be trained and “caught up to speed on everything related to legislation.”

Guess who was going to train her to do her (my) job?

You guessed it.

God was not done with me on the whole humility thing.

In fact, He was just getting started!

The world needs another blog

Hello, and welcome to Permission2SpeakFreely, my new blog! Because if there is one thing the world does not have enough of, it’s bloggers.

Wait!  Wasn’t blogging super popular like ten years ago?  Why yes… yes it was.  But guess what?  As with most areas of my life, I’m about a decade behind. (I just finished watching 24 by the way and it was awesome).  I would like to think that the blogging train has already left the station but I have one hand gripping the caboose.  The other hand is clutching a cup of Dunkins Donuts coffee if it’s before three pm or a glass of red wine if it’s after four. 🙂

Here’s a quick overview of the categories of things Permission2SpeakFreely will cover:

  • Wicked Cool Stories. One of my favorites is about a small group of people who did something very simple for several months before 9-11.  I believe that they saved many lives and possibly a Historic monument or two.  I will fill you in.  The story is found here: steps of faith -a 9/11 story
  • Interviews. I want to interview regular people with very unique and interesting perspectives.  For example, my aunt is a divorce attorney and she will be my first interview.  She is going to give us the inside scoop on why men divorce their wives.  I also want to interview a man who does a Deliverance ministry for Christians.  Can a Christian experience demonic oppression?  Yes they can, according to my friend Dave.  I sure hope he will let me interview him (I haven’t asked him yet!). I finally interviewed both my aunt and Dr. Appleby! Here: Confessions of a Divorce Lawyer; Confessions of an Exorcist.
  • From the Valley to the Hill. The blog will share stories about my long and winding journey from Onondaga Valley in Syracuse, NY to Capitol Hill, and all the twists and turns in between.  Plus some fun inside information. The adventure starts here: From the valley to the hill (part 1).
  • Caterpillars to Butterflies. I am going to get real and raw with you about some of my struggles and all the difficult yet wonderful lessons I have learned over the years.  I will share my perspective on rejection, infertility, waiting, adoption, and hard kids.  My struggles have made me the person I am today. Perhaps we can process issues together with perspective and hope.  Here is our infertility and adoption journey: My Thoughts on Infertility, Adoption, and a Mysterious Miracle (that hasn’t happened)(Plus a PS: for infertile women)
  • Guest Bloggers. If you have a topic and would like to blog about it, let’s talk about you publishing on Permission2SpeakFreely.
  • My own random thoughts about a variety of topics.

A few qualifiers: If you are looking for a fancy blog written by a girl with her whole life pulled together that is completely techno-savvy, then you should probably go to any other blog out there besides this one.  However, if you want a simple, down to earth, ridiculously honest, sometimes funny, somewhat educational and fun to read blog written by a very real and imperfect person, then welcome to Permission2SpeakFreely!

Why the title?  I’ve always loved this line in all the movies I’ve seen where a lower subject asks a superior “Sir, permission to speak freely?”  The Boss would smugly and slowly say “permission granted.”  I would always sit up a little straighter because I knew that a no bull sh#*%@  answer was on the way.  I hope that the culture of my blog will be just like this – real, raw and honest.  But also respectful.  And to that point, please feel free to comment, but let’s play nicely together and allow people to share their opinions without judgement. Politeness is a virtue.

It is my hope that you will enjoy Permission2SpeakFreely enough to continue to read it and I would be thrilled and honored if this blog can help you in some way in your own life!  Thanks for reading.

Heather