Current and former chiefs of staff spoke about how they got their start on Capitol Hill and the impact of their GW education.
By Kristen Mitchell
Graduate School of Political Management alumni said the key for students to make it on Capitol Hill is careful job research, networking and a positive attitude.
As current and former House of Representatives chiefs of staff, these four alumni have seen hundreds of well-educated internship candidates and entry-level job seekers make common mistakes.
“You would be surprised how many candidates for a position don’t even research the member himself,” said Bill Zito, a George Washington University alumnus and chief of staff to Rep. Pete Olson (R–Texas). “Everybody just wants to get their foot in the door, but you really have to sell to me why you want to work for that member and that district.”
Mr. Zito was joined Thursday by other alumni from GW’s Legislative Affairs degree program, including Hannah Kim, chief of staff to Rep. Charlie Rangel (D–N.Y.); Jamie Gahun, chief of staff to Rep. John Culberson (R–Texas); and Alex Harman, former chief of staff to then-Rep. Steven Horsford (D–Nev.).
Prospective and current students, faculty and staff attended the lunch program at the Rayburn House Office Building to learn about the legislative affairs program and to hear how the panelists launched their careers in government.
Ms. Kim said because interns are often the first face a constituent sees and the first voice they hear on the phone, it’s important to have a positive attitude no matter how stressful or overwhelming the day might be.
“We need somebody who can still put on that smile,” she said.
Part of that is being open to doing any task that needs to be done and not writing off anything as beneath you, she said. It’s also important not to give off the impression that any position is simply a stepping stone to something more glamorous.
“You know right away who’s going to do that and who’s actually going to stay and make a contribution to the office,” Ms. Kim said.
Ms. Gahun was already working on Capitol Hill as a deputy chief of staff when she started her master’s program. While it didn’t help her get her start, her GW education has helped her immensely since then.
“As chief you don’t have time to focus on any one thing. You’re kind of a jack of all trades, master of none because you’re doing so many different things you don’t have time to delve into one thing,” she said. “I was able to take a lot of the policy-related classes and immediately apply them to things I was doing here on the Hill.”
In her classes she met Mr. Zito for the first time. The pair now work hand-in-hand as Texas colleagues. He said school is a rare opportunity for students to engage with people from different backgrounds and political ideologies.
“You will take those relationships onto the Hill, and you will carry them for a long time, and that will be very helpful,” he said. “You don’t always agree, you rarely do, but at the end of the day you’re still human beings and friends.”
All the panelists agreed that networking is the key to moving up in politics, and that it’s important for students to make connections where they can. Most people working in legislative affairs will follow a nontraditional path—making a career in politics through several different jobs over time.
“You can’t really map this out,” Mr. Harman said. “You have to do the constant communication and networking and making yourself available.”
Ms. Gahun said job seekers should cast a wide net during the search process and set up informational interviews in offices that aren’t hiring but they are interested in. Her best advice: be patient.
“I know that seems silly,” she said. “But it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.”