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The Hill Life: The Old Switcheroo

Dear Belle,

In 2010, my boss (a Democrat) lost his seat.  To make ends meet, I took a position at a local think tank doing research.  I genuinely miss the Hill, but there are no…and I mean NO…jobs for Democrats.

I’m a registered Independent, and my former boss was a Blue Dog from a conservative area.  Do you think it would be wise to start looking for work in a Republican office? Would a Republican Member even consider hiring me?

Sincerely, Anonymous

Many budding politicos come to D.C. without fully formed political views.  These newbies fall somewhere in the moderate middle with a tilt to one side.  As a result, many young Hill applicants don’t relegate their job search to one specific party.  But what some don’t realize is that once you select a party, you’re branded for life.

Once you’re a Jet, if you want to switch to the Sharks, you have to accept that the Sharks may not be so welcoming.  And that once you trade jackets, you’re a Shark for life because the Jets will now be suspicious of any attempt to return.  (Insert Broadway-style finger-snapping, here.)

This is not to say that no one has ever bounced between parties like a rubber ball.  But those people are incredibly rare, like Unicorns, and they usually have some hideously unique skill that makes them too valuable to be bound by party. 

Typically, these mythical creatures are committee staffers who are far too knowledgeable about an issue to be lost in a partisan shift.  Finding another expert on U.S. Mint policy or the nuances of TRICARE is just too difficult.

So to sum up, yes, you can jump.  But if you jump, you will be tethered where you land.

Now, will a Republican hire you?

It’s certainly possible.  Of course, it depends on what kind of think tank you’re working at right now.  If you’re at Center for American Progress, you’re stuck.  But if you’re working at Third Way, Cato or an issue-oriented think tank, then your outlook improves. But moderate Republican jobs are just as rare as Democrat jobs, so I’m not sure you’ll be better off switching. 

If you were my employee, I would tell you to hold tight.  After all, it’s an election year, and we’re getting to the point where vacancies created in the summer might not be filled until December.  Also, post-election is when most Hill Staffers move on to other work.  So it’s likely that jobs could open up then.

I’d wait and not do anything drastic that I might regret.  Unless you’re absolutely sure that you cannot wait, and completely certain that you’re happy playing for the other side, I’d just exert some patience and start networking like a beast so that when jobs open up, you’ll know about it.

Of course, all of this advice is moot if you have a genuine change of heart in your political beliefs.  In that case, it is recommended that you try to switch rather than simply go along with beliefs you no longer agree with.  But there is a difference between being a moderate who feels they could work for either party, and a person who has genuinely switched parties.

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  1. E says:

    To the questioner – I don't know where you're looking but I ALWAYS see Democrat openings, especially on the House Vacancy emails. Maybe try signing up for that too! I see almost all Democrat positions weekly on there.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  2. EK says:

    The post is definitely good advice in general, but for this particular letter-writer, I'm with E – I scan the House Vacancy list every week and it's almost all jobs in Democratic offices or for Democratic committee staff. I recall Belle having a good post or two on where to search that also included some helpful tips in the comments – that might be a good approach to take as well.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  3. H says:

    It's also been slim pickings on the Republican side b/c a lot of the new members have been trying to run on very small staffs to keep costs down. So compromising your beliefs may not even get you a Hill job. I'd say stick it out at the think tank and campaign for Dems. Then try to land something after the election.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  4. Maria says:

    Did you just try to imply that Cato is a moderate, middle of the road organization?

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  5. Ellie says:

    No, she implied that if you worked at Cato, you'd be able to get a job in a Republican office.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  6. Maria says:

    I see.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  7. Rachel says:

    I agree with Belle, see if you can wait until after the election. People always leave the Hill after a particularly brutal election year because of burn out or new opportunities, so more positions will open until up in the beginning of 2013 (hopefully).

    Also, It is confusing to potential employers why you would want to switch parties, especially to other staffers who might be true believers in their boss's parties. Personally, I would be wary of hiring someone from “the other side.”

    I gotta be a brat and agree with Maria. In my experience, Cato is not exactly middle of the road on policy. But one person's middle is another person's extreme!

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  8. e says:

    Speaking from more of a campaign staffer perspective, we would be very, very leary of hiring someone who had worked for the other side, skills aside. If you switched, you definitely wouldn't be able to switch back. It'd be one thing if you interned for the other side and then wanted to work on a different side. Understandable.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  9. Virginia says:

    I can really think of only one time it's easy to switch sides, and that's if you interned for your home-district Member in college. I think most offices are understanding of that if you have ONLY interned for that home-district person and haven't done anything else on that particular side of the aisle. You just have to make very clear that you are actually blue/red/green and want to work for those priorities from here on out.

    Otherwise, switching sides should only be done if you have an extreme break with your party for one reason or another, and you need to know that it's 1) not going to be easy and 2) you will be, as Belle said, branded with your new party for life. No jumping back and forth.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  10. Liz says:

    I did switch sides. It took some explaining at first, but I think because people saw it was to be in line with my beliefs it was more readily accepted. Back in undergrad, I interned for a summer on the Hill for my local representative, and then spent a semester of school working at the district office, which was conveniently 5 minutes from campus. After college and a masters I then worked for the “other side,” a.k.a. the party I have identified with since I was 22 (now celebrating the second anniversary of my 29th birthday). It took some time explaining that my political beliefs had changed over the course of college, and that now that I had a deeper understanding of the issues vital to me, this is what I identify with. After about a year working with “my” party is was a non-issue, but be prepared for some initial explaining. I haven't worked on the Hill in a couple years (moved back to my state and working in policy there – just applied to law school). That was my experience, and for my two cents I thought I'd share in case it helps make a decision.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  11. AVA says:

    Why not attempt to broaden your portfolio while waiting to get back to the hill. Maybe find a job at Dept of Veterans Affairs, Social Security, or DOD? These are departments that have a very broad audience and are very complicated to understand which is why there are people who specialize in them. It could make you more marketable when you go back to the Hill. On the flip side, if you want to stay with the party whose ideas you espouse you could try to find a job that has a prominent Democratic Secretary, such as the State Department. I do not think anyone is as likely to question your time away from the hill if you worked for a prominent member of their party in a different arena.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  12. Timing says:

    Getting a job on the Hill (besides luck and preparation) is timing! Of course there are no jobs now–people are buckling down for the election cycle. Reassess the situation after the elections, especially since redistricting has drastically affected some states.

    March 28, 2012/Reply
  13. Moose says:

    I was in Anonymous' shoes 2008. I worked for a moderate Republican who lost. I told myself I wouldn't mind working for a Blue Dog, but it didn't happen. I did a year at a nonpartisan thinktank, networked like crazy, and got back on the Hill. I agree with Timing. Getting on the Hill and the quality of your experience is heavily dependent on factors out of your control.

    My advice would be don't switch UNLESS you have had a permanent and fundamental shift in your beliefs. The truth is — even though they may effectively be more similar than different— there is a deep and dark political chasm between Blue Dog Ds and Main Street Rs. And on the Hill (unfortunately IMO) moderation is not rewarded. Pick a party and stick with it.

    Finally, Belle is right. Network like it's your job. Just be at every event. I can't emphasize this enough. Any connection helps, even a tenuous one. This is true in the “real world”— but it is magnified by 1,000 on the Hill. And don't forget to milk contacts from your old office for all their connections. They may have left the Hill but I guarantee you they still have extensive contacts. If you did a good job, chances are they (or even your old Member) are willing to make a call for you.

    March 29, 2012/Reply