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Career Opportunities in Politics

Posted on 05 November 2009

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Despite the American public’s consistently low voter turnout, young college graduates continue to flock to Washington, D.C., every year in hopes of launching a career in politics.

Getting the foot in democracy’s door isn’t always easy. If you want to work in politics, you have to understand the process, make contacts, be able to spin your qualifications and run a personal campaign that gains the trust of key decision makers.

One Student’s Personal Campaign

Josh Rubenstein, a political-science major at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., is a long way from Washington, D.C., and the Beltway political action which is his career goal when he graduates this spring. So when the Commission on Presidential Debates chose his school as a site for a debate, he wasted no time planning his job-search campaign.

Planning a Strategy

Opportunities on Capitol Hill

Other Career Routes in Politics

Schmoozing at the event was a cornerstone of his game plan. He gained entrance by volunteering as a VIP escort. He introduced himself to the political elite as he shuttled them from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel a few miles away to the debate site on campus.

“I think the debate [was] an excellent opportunity, not to distribute resumes, because that’s really not what the people [were] here for, but to at least meet them, express some interest and maybe get some names of people to follow up with,” he says.

Planning a Strategy

Knowing he would be meeting some of the country’s fastest movers and talkers, the savvy 22-year-old from Middlesex, Mass., prepared a quick pitch introducing himself and letting them know he has an interest in politics. It was something like: “I’m Josh Rubenstein. I’m a senior at Washington University, and I’m planning to pursue a career in politics when I graduate this spring.”

His research kept the conversation going. “I follow politics pretty closely, so I [knew] something about the people and their backgrounds and [could] engage them in a meaningful and memorable conversation,” he says. “If you can show an interest in what they do and what they’re trying to accomplish, you’ll stand out from [students] who just want to hand them a resume and say, ‘Hire me.’ ”

In case this crash networking session doesn’t produce a solid offer, he’s also planning to a trip to Washington, D.C., in the spring to follow up. “I’ll be going up, making phone calls and trying to get my foot in the door somewhere that way,” Rubenstein says. He’s also applying for a summer position as a White House intern.

Temperament and Timing Are Key

To break into the political field, it helps to have a thick skin and competitive personality. Jim Larrew, a senior studying political science at University of Missouri in St. Louis, found this out firsthand recently, when he ended up literally toe-to-toe with U.S. Congressional candidate Bill Federer of St. Louis.

Larrew, a 22-year-old intern with House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt’s (D., Mo.) campaign, was conducting what’s euphemistically called “opposition research.” He was videotaping Federer as the candidate campaigned at a parade in St. Louis. The candidate confronted him. The tussle that ensued, all caught on tape, was broadcast on local television stations.

His father, Joseph Larrew, a St. Louis attorney, says it was an educational experience for his son. “I think Mr. Federer embarrassed himself and the political process by what he did. And that’s probably a good learning experience for my son in terms of finding out that people in politics sometimes act in an unpredictable way,” he says. Jim Larrew and his attorney couldn’t be reached for comment.

Conduct can make or break a rookie staffer’s career, says Jeff Smith, deputy political director for former Sen. Bill Bradley (D., N.J.) during his recent presidential bid. “Temperament is an issue,” he says. “I wouldn’t characterize what happened on [Gephardt's] campaign as normal, or something that one should expect. On the other hand, campaign workers probably get yelled at a hell of a lot more than somebody working in accounting.”

But in a fast-paced, demanding atmosphere, advancement opportunities can break at anytime. When Smith accompanied Bradley to the Iowa caucuses in January, he was tied for low man on the staff totem pole. “A month later, I was suddenly the No. 3 guy out of about 30 or 40 people,” he says.

For most minor leaguers, the climb to big-league politics is a tough one. After advancing from intern to staff assistant to legislative assistant to, for example, press secretary, staffers can find themselves earning only $30,000 a year at age 29. Many decide to leave the public sector and move to such professions as public relations and lobbying, which often pay annual salaries of $85,000 or more.

Where the Entry-Level Jobs Are

Election seasons present numerous opportunities to break into politics by working on a political campaign. Of course, you’ll likely have to start by volunteering your time, and job security will be a gamble considering your candidate may not be elected.

As in the private sector, many of the most viable opportunities focus on information technology. “If you’re Web-proficient, that will be enormously helpful to you as candidates are moving their campaigns to the Internet,” says Smith. “Many of us who are involved in campaigns don’t know how to put up Web sites but look at the Internet as a new dynamic for politics.”

Research is another avenue with numerous options. “The first thing a candidate does when he enters a race, ideally, is to hire someone to do research: first on himself and then on the opposition. You have to know everything that you’ve ever said, publicly, and everything that’s out there on you as a candidate, so you’re inoculated against any attacks if they come your way,” says Smith.

As Jim Larrew discovered, a research role might not be as dry as one might think. Opposition research can combine the intrigue of a soap opera with the shock and excitement of tabloid television.

For the more faint of heart, there’s also a need for pollsters, who conduct market research. Moreover, says Smith, “There’s also a lot of grunt work to be done, which isn’t nearly as glamorous as it may be portrayed in ‘West Wing’ ” a television drama.

Opportunities on Capitol Hill

If you’re looking for a slightly slower pace and job security, you may want to consider working for a sitting congressman or senator. However, the opportunities are more competitive and timing is everything. “Even though the jobs don’t pay well, there’s always a horde of recent college graduates going to try and find these jobs…There are never enough jobs to go around,” says Smith.

To secure a job on Capitol Hill, you’ll need to go there during the December transition when members of Congress are going through orientation. “That’s when they’re staffing up,” says Smith.

The best contact to approach is the congressman’s or senator’s administrative assistant or chief of staff. Rather than relying on a resume pitch and a prayer, attend a Capitol Hill job fair where incoming congressmen are looking to hire experienced staffers, Smith advises. “You need to find a way to get your face in front of them,” he says. “You need to either give [a resume] to them personally, and have five minutes to try and sell yourself, or know someone. I don’t think sending a resume would be a good use of your time unless you’re a Harvard Law graduate at the top of your class.”

Paul Wright, a graduate of Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City, landed his spot as an intern with Sen. Robert Bennett (R., Utah) through the university’s Washington, D.C., seminar program, which gives about 30 students a chance to intern in the nation’s capital each semester. “I got in through the school…It wasn’t personal contacts or anything like that,” he says. Later, he worked in the office of Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah).

Wright credits his success to a strong resume and cover letter, which was focused and thoroughly critiqued prior to submission. If your aim is simply to land an internship spot regardless of the area you’ll be working in, do some research first to find out what’s most needed, says Wright. “Try to find out what the office is looking for. If it’s press, you can stress your interest in journalism,” he says.

Many in D.C. Pursue Grad School

Now Wright is following a path common to many recent graduates who have worked in Washington, D.C. He’s a first-year law student at Washington University. While he has an interest in constitutional law, he hasn’t settled on a long-term career goal. He has no plans to seek political office, but after graduating from law school, hopes to become involved in political issues and campaigns wherever he settles down.

Rubenstein also eventually plans to pursue a law degree or a master’s degree in public policy regardless of the success of his short-term job search. “From people I’ve talked to in government, most of them go back and get a graduate degree after getting a couple of year’s experience in Washington,” he says.

Other Career Routes in Politics

There are many facets of politics and many more ways to shape public policy than these. Consider Michelle Purdy, student-union president at Washington University. She’s heavily involved in campus politics but after graduation in May, the 22-year-old plans a break from elective office.

“I’m interested in doing something unity- or public-policy oriented, such as Teach for America, the Americorps program or pursuing a fellowship,” she says.

Whatever cause she decides to take on, Ms. Purdy, thanks to her involvement in student politics, will have plenty of marketable experience and contacts. During the four-day debate extravaganza at Washington University, she conducted media interviews, helped welcome the national television audience and collected business cards from influential decision-makers.

Demonstrate Diplomacy

But political involvement can be a touchy issue for many employers. Adam Eidinger knows this slippery slope well. He began his career as a congressional intern, then moved to Rabinowitz Media Strategies, a public-relations firm in Washington, D.C. But his job there hit a dead end when he became involved in protests against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and a newspaper ran a photo of him at an event.

“I lost my job because of my political beliefs,” he says. His boss saw the photo and asked him to stop working on the issue. “He said, ‘I don’t like the issue, and I wouldn’t take them as a client,’ ” says Eidinger. He’s now with Mintwood Media, a Washington, D.C., public-relations firm that specializes in nonprofit and social-action causes.

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