I decided that if I could find the “right” Senator, I would consider looking for another job. About that time, I heard of a job opening for Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, and since my boyfriend Erik was from New Hampshire (and just raved about the state), I sent over my resume and cover letter to see what would happen. A few days later I got a call to come in for an interview.
I went in for what I assumed would be my first interview, and met with the Legislative Director, who seemed like a very nice, laid-back guy. Since this was supposed to be my “first” interview, I must confess that I didn’t “try as hard” as I should have as evidenced by the fact that I wore my glasses instead of my contacts (contact wearers will know what I mean by this), my hair was back in a half pony-tail, and I’m not even sure I wore a suit!
After about twenty minutes of chatting, a side door quietly opened and another man entered the room. The LD introduced this man as the Chief of Staff. I sat up a little straighter, thinking this was getting more serious. A few minutes later I noticed a very tall older man with a face that radiated a mixture of authority, humility, and kindness quietly enter through that same side door. I sat up like a pin! It was the Senator himself! He introduced himself and we made small talk while he asked me questions, and the conversation flowed naturally and well. The interview itself was actually quite easy and there was a good chemistry between all of us. However, I must admit that I felt incredibly under-prepared for this interview.
And then “THE” question came. They asked me about “salary expectations.” I had been told that I needed to ask for $40,000 per year because I finally had my Masters Degree. Back then, that was a lot of money. Honestly, I didn’t think a girl liked me deserved a salary like that. And since I wasn’t expecting this question on my first interview, I just blurted out the first thing that came to my mind:
“I prayed for 40,” I said with a dead-serious expression.
And then I inwardly kicked myself. I couldn’t believe I said that! Who says that?! I could feel my face turning red. All of the men kinda smirked at me and then the Chief of Staff said he’d be back in touch in a few days. I was nervous all weekend and wondered if they thought I was a total floozy.
A few days later the Chief of Staff called me with a job offer to be the Legislative Assistant on Social and Family policy issues! And then he said, with a smile I could actually hear through the phone: “And we’d like to offer you a starting salary of $45,000 per year!”
On Monday morning I started my new job. I was excited and scared and energized all at the same time. I plunged in with a full portfolio of issues ranging from the Federal budget to Health care to Education to Social and Family policy.
Senator Bob Smith and me. I loved working for him! Great guy, all around.
Here are some things I learned about working in the U.S. Senate:
- The first thing I learned was how to “bottom line” everything I said. My LD always joked that I needed my points to be in “bumper sticker form.” And that’s the bottom line on point number one.
- The second thing I noticed about working in the Senate is that it was made up of “old white men.” At the time, I counted about 15 women to the 85 men. I thought to myself then as I still do today: “we need more women in the U.S. Senate!!” Additionally, I thought there would be a lot of in-fighting among the Senators. However, I learned that most of the time the Senators got along well and were friendly and cordial to each other on and off the Senate floor. Many were good friends and preferred to make deals behind the scenes. And to that point, life on the Hill is all about relationships. If you are not good at relationships or if you lack a high EQ (emotional IQ), you will not do well working on the Hill.
- The role of the staff is very important in the life of a Senator. Staff guide their Members in policy decision-making, write speeches, meet with folks to discuss future policy, draft legislation, and basically handle a ton of things behind their Member’s back, only presenting the “cream of the crop” to their boss, when the time is right.
- Now a misconception. When I first started working on the Hill I assumed that staff and Members constantly passed major legislation and got a lot of “big things” done on the Hill. In my experience, this is just not true. Partisanship is alive and well on Capitol Hill and I found that it was hard to pass major legislation. I suppose one thing you could do is just chip away at an issue for several years, or ride a wave of popularity and get right in front of it first with your boss as the lead sponsor. (And if you work on a Committee this would not apply – as Committee staff write a lot of legislation.) However, I have learned that as long as you are working as a part of a team, moving the ball down the court through small legislative changes, as well as changing the debate on the issues, then you are making good progress.
- Working on the Hill can be very exciting! There were some cool moments for me such as the adrenaline rush that took place every time I walked onto the Senate floor, or heard one of ‘my’ speeches read, or saw that one of my policy proposals got passed and/or signed into law. There were also some not so cool moments like election night when I watched my very employment, and that of my Member, be decided by the voters. It’s a very strange feeling to watch the returns coming in and wonder whether you are about to lose your job. I remember the contested election with George Bush and Al Gore that ended up going on for days via Florida recount. That election night we were at the party headquarters. You should have seen the myriad of staffers from all over the country chain-smoking their little selves to death. The tension was insane, even before anyone knew what a hanging chad was. Besides the excitement, many folks (including the Members) work on the Hill for the difference they hope to make for our country. It’s definitely not for the money as the pay is not that good.
I was working on the Hill during some of the most scary and unfortunate times in our nation’s history: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the anthrax incident, and the Capitol Hill shooting. Fortunately, I was actually not on the Hill during 9/11 and the attack on the Pentagon; I was in the state of New Hampshire for a women’s health conference. This is literally the ONLY time I ever traveled for my job. After the awful news broke that the first airplane had hit the WTC, Senator Smith’s wife sent us all home and I ended up watching all the news coverage from my in-laws home and later taking a train ride back to DC a few days later. I could actually see the smoke rising from New York City as the train passed by. I will never forget that image for as long as I live. As for the anthrax scare: when anthrax was mailed to the Hill, the result was the entire Congress being cleared out and shut down for several days. We were all given a course of Cipro and the mail smelled disgusting for months on end. I must confess, those were unsettling times for all Members and staff on the Hill.
I never got any “big things” done while I worked on the Hill. However, my boss (along with my support) passed amendments pertaining to: education, prescription drugs, non-lethal animal control measures, research on women’s health, and a study about sexual abuse in schools (abusing teachers were actually passed off to other school districts without their knowledge…it was gross. They called it ‘passing the trash’). Our office also took the lead on exposing what some abortion clinics were doing with their fetal tissue — they actually sold a lot of it for a profit and had price lists for different body parts. Although our amendment did not pass, it set off a huge debate about the actual practice in general, and a national news network did a big expose on it. I was proud to work as a part of a team of both staff and those on the outside to advance and pass somewhat small legislative fixes, even if the overall concept was a big one. I was never famous. I never passed major legislation. And I didn’t even make it to the top of the ladder in my office. Nevertheless, I was grateful to play a small part in the overall big picture.
My boss, Senator Smith, was a kind, strong, passionate, and sensitive man with a huge heart and a drive to do the right thing for our country. He was always 100 percent professional and always willing to do the hard thing, even if it meant he would take bullets. He was anti-establishment before anti-establishment was cool. He faced many challenges in his life which made him into the person he became. I have nothing but the deepest respect for him to this day. I often joke that if I ever end up on ‘locked up abroad’ he will be the first person I call.
The Smith Team, a great group of people. I didn’t get the memo to wear a black suit, however!
I loved working on the Hill, however, I did not do well with the whole “work/life balance.” Most evenings I didn’t even get home until 8:15 pm, only to hang out with my husband Erik (I ended up marrying the guy who suggested New Hampshire!) for an hour or two, go to bed, and do it all over again. I found myself working 55 plus hours per week and more than 15 hours per week in commuting time. Honestly, I don’t even remember what I ate for dinner Monday through Thursday nights (neither did Erik). I was also tired and worn out. Working on the Hill can be emotionally and spiritually tiring.
And then the day came when my boss ran for re-election. Usually, incumbents are safe and can hang onto their seats, but there were several dynamics working against my boss and unfortunately he lost his election. Our entire staff was devastated and I found myself out of job (again).
Just as though there are four seasons to every year, I believe there are “seasons” in the life of every person. After my boss lost his seat, I realized that my season of working full-time on the Hill had concluded. On the one hand I was relieved to not have the hours or the stress, on the other hand I was sad to not be involved in the issues. I was soon after that we began the adoption process and eventually adopted our beautiful daughter, Claire. My days of working on the Hill were over, at least for that period of my life.
And that, Dear Reader, is the story of how an insecure girl with a difficult background from Onondaga Valley, New York, eventually and imperfectly arrived on Capitol Hill. I didn’t have a rich, well-connected father, had no political connections myself, didn’t know anybody, and didn’t really know what I was doing half the time. Nevertheless, I was blessed with opportunities to make a difference for our country and to work alongside some great people. For that I am truly grateful.
In conclusion, I was reminded about a prayer I prayed a long time before I even got to Capitol Hill. It went something like this: “God, how am I going to get a job on the Hill? I don’t even know anyone!”
In his own, quiet way, I felt God say to me: “Yes you do. You know me. And I know everybody.”
And honestly, that’s what I learned the most about writing From the Valley to the Hill. That God was always there — guiding and directing all of my steps. Even my missteps and disappointments. So even if one person reads this story, it was worth it to write it up and put it out there.
Even if that one reader is me.