Heard on the Hill

Are you cut out for the campaign trail?

How to tell if you’re a campaigner or meant for the Hill life

Jennifer Wexton campaign manager Ray Rieling points to CNN’s coverage of the Virginia 10th District race as Wexton’s staff and family watch election returns in the campaign’s war room on election night 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Half-eaten doughnuts. Late-night conference calls over multiple cups of coffee. The life of a campaigner can be hectic and unpredictable. It’s also more physical, whether it’s spending hours in a car driving from the Tallapoosa County Democratic Women’s luncheon or logging miles on Saturday morning door knocking in the summer heat.

It’s best suited for those with a high tolerance for chaos.

But working on Capitol Hill as a policy staffer is its own grind, one in which the hours are more predictable but the payoff is uncertain. Its practitioners are concerned with the slow-moving pace of policy sausage making (or pâté baking) which can take weeks, months or sometimes a decade.

It’s best suited for those with an abundance of patience.

[The fight for intern pay moves to 2020 campaigns]

Hill staffers and campaigners agree that each field attracts certain personalities. So how do you know which path is the right one?

“I think it simply has to do with how you’re wired,” says Mike Quiello, who worked as a senior policy adviser to both Sens. Johnny Isakson and Dan Coats. “I found the logical and intellectual challenges of strategic policymaking to be more appealing than the immediacy and tactical day to day of campaigning.”

It was that immediacy and churn that drew Caroline Brown to the campaign life.

She’s always been “driven by a fast-paced, ever-changing environment, something new every day,” says Brown, who served as deputy finance director for Lindsey Graham’s 2014 Senate reelection and his 2016 presidential campaign. The chance to interact with voters and donors appealed to her “far more than the nuances of policy and the slow-moving wheels of Congress.”

[Bernie 2020 becomes first unionized presidential campaign in history]

The late nights and constant travel can take its toll, but campaigning offers something the Hill doesn’t: a definite end date on Election Day. That finish line, win or lose, makes the grind more tolerable, says Brown.

The slog of the policy world is a bit different. Because there’s no guarantee that an issue you care about will gain traction in the public eye, the task can feel Sisyphean.

“It’s a frustration, for sure,” says Quiello, who spent almost 15 years on the Hill. Intellectually, a staffer can understand that it’s a messy process. But it’s difficult to “totally divorce yourself” from caring about the outcome of your initiatives after investing so much time and energy, “only to see them lose or not even come up for consideration.”

Still, that uncertainty can make the occasional victories that much sweeter.

Quiello points to an obscure provision in a pension bill he worked on for 18 months. He counts its inclusion in the final passage as a professional point of pride, especially after receiving feedback from grateful constituents. But Quiello spent years building his expertise on the Hill.

For Brown, the campaign offered an opportunity for quick career advancement. Before becoming a deputy fundraiser, she spent a semester in Graham’s D.C. office as an intern, followed by a campaign internship and a fellowship with Rep. Henry Brown of South Carolina. The Hill experiences gave her a “pretty good picture” of what her life would be like as an entry-level staff assistant, so when she graduated in 2011, she had plenty of information to help her make a decision.

Since hiring on the Hill can be zero sum and completely dependent on office turnover rates, there was no telling how long she would have to wait to work her way up from dealing mostly with constituents to working more closely with a member of Congress or candidate.

Brown remembers a 2014 campaign event in which former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice headlined for Graham. Serving as a point person for the event and the impact it had on the campaign validated her decision, Brown says. Gaining that kind of responsibility at such a young age was “an experience that I probably would not have had” had she stayed on the Hill.

Of course, there’s always that rare operative who moves easily between both worlds.

For instance, people who worked on the winning campaign of a newly elected congressmen sometimes follow the new member to D.C. And occasionally you see Hill staffers, particularly on the communications side,  get snatched up for a presidential campaign with hopes of joining the eventual White House staff.

But for the most part, professionals like fundraisers and political directors stick to the campaign side — and tend to think their grass is greener.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.