From NC to DC: A Capitol Hill staffer’s route to Washington

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 28, 2013 

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    Information about congressional staff salaries is publicly available on the website, though free access is limited.

— WASHINGTON Reggie McCrimmon met his boss, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a couple of years ago, when McCrimmon was student body president at N.C. Central University, Butterfield’s alma mater.

“He reached out to me because I was president there and was on the board of trustees,” McCrimmon said. “We had a conversation about when he was an undergraduate there. We talked about his path. I really admire that he took the time to do that.”

As a political science major, McCrimmon, who grew up in Fayetteville, said he read about Washington all the time and wanted to work there.

“You watch the news and see all the excitement going on. I’ve always been a person who wanted to be in the eye of the storm, to see firsthand how things operate,” he said.

McCrimmon didn’t ask the congressman from Wilson for a job right away. He took internships while in college with then-Gov. Bev Perdue and the state’s Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro. But he stayed in touch with Butterfield.

When he graduated this past May, he told Butterfield’s office he was interested in a job in Washington, “and if they heard anything, I’d appreciate any notices they came across.”

The congressman’s office responded with an offer of a paid internship that quickly turned into a regular job as a staff assistant, the person who manages the front office, coordinates intern programs, handles requests for flags and greetings, and gives tours to visiting constituents.

Many North Carolina members of Congress choose their newest staffers from among their pools of successful interns or campaign workers from their home state.

Some who have taken this route say it’s important to like the person you’re working for. The pay isn’t great. Offices are cramped. Staffs are generally small – usually about 16 people for House members. And the hours are long. These are people you work with all day and sometimes into the night.

Low pay, high satisfaction

Ed McDonald, Republican Rep. Howard Coble’s chief of staff since 1988, said the budgets that members of Congress get to run their offices have shrunk in recent years. A staff assistant starts out at about $30,000 in Coble’s office, and “that’s pretty typical.” A constituent advocate in the Senate starts at roughly the same salary.

“It’s tough. That’s why they all have to live in group houses and go to receptions to eat,” McDonald said.

Low pay is the leading reason staffers leave, according to a survey of 1,400 congressional staffers released in September by the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonprofit group that trains congressional staff.

It found that 63 percent of Washington-based staff members said they would look for new jobs in the next 12 months, compared with 37 percent of the overall U.S. workforce. Fifty-one percent said their main reason for wanting to leave was the desire to earn more money.

But at the same time, 80 percent reported overall satisfaction with their jobs.

“In Washington, paid or unpaid, it can be still difficult,” McCrimmon agreed. “But I was just so glad they were able to make that opportunity for me.”

Rising through the ranks

Still, there are perks. Some of the more senior staffers get to travel with their boss and help with some of the decision-making.

McDonald, for example, has traveled to Turkey, Singapore and Indonesia, according to the website LegiStorm, and he said he makes most of the decisions about hiring when there are office vacancies.

Perhaps, more important, Hill staffers learn Washington from the inside, and rise through the ranks, and as they do, salaries go up. A legislative director can make about $100,000, McDonald said. Chiefs of staff for House members earn somewhat more, sometimes around $125,000, while those for Senate members can make about $160,000.

Some staffers also go on to public office. Rep. Richard Hudson, a Republican from Concord, for example, was a chief of staff to three Republican members of Congress: Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk, and John Carter and Michael Conaway, both of Texas.

Robert Reid, who grew up mainly in Charlotte, worked on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in North Carolina and Ohio. In April, he became press secretary for Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican from Winston-Salem. In January, he’s moving on to become communications director, a more senior position, for Hudson.

Reid spent a summer as an unpaid intern for Burr before he graduated in 2010 from Wake Forest University. He also worked briefly as an investment bank analyst and as a staffer for Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., before the presidential campaign.

Reid said he’s enjoying Washington and learning a lot. He also said he feels it’s a critical time for the nation in terms of foreign policy, domestic politics, the national debt and the economy.

Reid said Burr had about 20 staffers in his Washington office, plus about an additional 10 staffers who work for him on the committees to which he is assigned. Senators have many staffers in their state who handle constituent services.

“It’s very important to him to hire North Carolinians,” Reid said, “so that the people he hires have an understanding of the state and the issues that face the people here.”

Senate staffs are not only larger, but the people on them tend to stay longer, often for 10 years or more, Reid said.

Job insecurity

Still, job security is at times an issue. House members are up for re-election every two years, senators every six.

When Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a Republican, lost to Hagan in 2008, Bradley Ballou, a Cary native and UNC Wilmington student body president and graduate, had to look for a new job. He had started as an intern for Dole and then got a job as her scheduler and driver, and later moved into a position as a legislative staffer.

Ballou now works as the federal relations director for the University of North Carolina, representing the university system’s interests in Congress and at federal agencies.

Dole’s former staffers, he said, are still good friends.

McDonald, Coble’s chief of staff, hasn’t had to think about job security since 1984, when he left his job at a Greensboro radio station to be Coble’s press secretary during his first congressional campaign.

A radio reporter friend of McDonald’s turned the job down because the pay was too low. He gave them McDonald’s name.

The campaign manager called. They negotiated so that McDonald didn’t take a pay cut.

“I have just one question,” McDonald remembers saying: “Does it bother you I’m a registered Democrat?”

Before long, he switched parties. When he became chief of staff, the top job, in 1988, he kept press duties because he liked them. Except for one year working for former Gov. Robert Ehrlich in his native state of Maryland, McDonald has been working for Coble ever since.

While he was away in 2003, Coble, speaking on a radio program, defended the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. McDonald said the staff didn’t handle it properly. The chief of staff quit, and Coble invited McDonald to dinner and asked him to return. He did.

Coble said being a Republican and a college graduate are preferable, but not conditions for being hired on his staff. But he said it’s important for him that his staffers grew up or went to school in his district.

“I try to be flexible, and we’ve been blessed with very little attrition,” he said. “But I do like to have that connection with the district as much as possible.”

Coble is a “laid-back, friendly guy,” McDonald said. He makes people feel welcome when they walk into his office, which isn’t the case everywhere, he said.

“Many of these lawmakers are very tough to work for.”; Twitter: @reneeschoof

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