A lot of times, political staffers are pigeonholed into being just that, staffers. Most people don’t view them as leaders. After all, standing in the background they don’t have the experience of speaking in front of a crowd, glad-handing supporters at a fund raiser or dialing-for-dollars from the back seat of an SUV traversing the hills and valleys of their respective state.
Even so, it’s no secret many staffers harbor their own electoral aspirations, wanting to join the fray at some point to earn titles bestowed on them by voters – like “Congressman” or “Senator” – instead of the name given to them by their parents.
While the eventual task might seem daunting, for those looking towards another avenue of service down the road, there are plenty of examples of those that effectively shed the staff stigma and are now among the top tier of future leaders of their party. Among them are Paul Ryan, John Thune and Mitch Daniels. Each one, in his own right, was first successful in learning policy and politics in the District before moving back home to face voters.
For policy wonk and budget guru Paul Ryan, his Capitol Hill story begins as an intern, and later economic policy analyst, to U.S. Senator Bob Kasten of Wisconsin in the early 90s. Kasten went on to lose his 1992 re-election bid, causing Ryan to take up a stint at Empower America before returning to the Hill as legislative director for then-Senator Sam Brownback, now governor of Kansas.
When Mark Neumann, in only his second term in the House, announced he was running for the U.S. Senate, Ryan decided to run for the open seat to take his economic policy chops to the floor of the House of Representatives. As we know, he won, and has been returned to Congress every two years since. Today he is one of the voices – and minds – leading the charge for fiscal responsibility through balancing our budget and paying down our debt.
Not long before Ryan worked in the Senate, John Thune was a Capitol Hill staffer in the upper chamber as well, spending time as a legislative aide to South Dakota’s Senator James Abdnor. Unfortunately, just like Ryan’s boss, Abdnor was defeated, in his case, by Tom Daschle. Thune then joined Abdnor at the Small Business Administration through Ronald Reagan’s second term which is when he headed back home for a two-year gig as executive director of the South Dakota Republican Party.
That’s when Thune, two years before Ryan became a member, took his seat in the House of Representatives. A few years later he ran for the Senate himself, losing to the incumbent, Tim Johnson. Then, in a perfect political full circle, Thune defeated the man who cost him his first Capitol Hill job, Tom Daschle, and became a U.S. Senator in 2005.
Then there’s Mitch Daniels, now governor of Indiana, who got his feet wet toiling on the Indianapolis mayoral campaign of Richard Lugar. After Lugar joined Congress’ deliberative body, Daniels assumed the role of chief of staff in the office before stints as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and in the Reagan White House. He then went back home to Indiana to join the private sector. His long respite from government service ended when President George W. Bush plucked him from the Hoosier State and appointed Daniels as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, a Cabinet-level position. He stayed in that role until 2003 when he – again – returned home to Indiana. But this time, rather than join the private sector, Daniels ran for governor against a Democrat incumbent and was not only successful in that race, but also won re-election in 2008 by a double-digit margin, the same year Barack Obama carried the Hoosier State by a whisker.
It’s rather ironic then, that for an electorate who claims to despise all that is Washington, they turn time-and-time again to these wise hands for solutions to what plagues our nation – specifically on issues of the budget, reducing our deficits and reforming entitlements. These stellar leaders, and more like them, learned from the best and the worst. They learned from the triumphs and mistakes of others and sit among the top tier of today’s – and tomorrow’s – leaders for good reason.
In fact, all three were unsuccessfully recruited to run for president this year. Although not highlighted publicly, among the reasons why is because they all have an understanding of how Washington works and, most importantly, how it doesn’t work. Typically the term “insider” is hurled around as a pejorative. In the case of Ryan, Thune and Daniels, it’s a compliment. They understand all that plagues the District. And sometimes it takes someone who has actually been in the trenches to know how the sausage is made and ultimately how to fix it. Rookies are all well and good, but institutional knowledge is a great asset.
So for all those staffers thinking that maybe someday they may run for office themselves, take solace. There is a path for the proverbial “insider” to serve in a different capacity. To leave as a worker bee and come back as the boss.