Legislative Assistants: The Gatekeepers of Change

by Ivy Jones

The United States political system is something that most people do not understand fully and never will. As you break down the political system and just take it to a state level, it is still complicated and most people will not understand it; even in a simple state like Oregon. An essential part of the political system are people who fill the role of Legislative Assistant (L.A). These are people that work directly with representatives and help them with a variety of tasks.. There are many job titles and job descriptions that come with the position as an L.A.

Most L.As are in their mid-twenties or early thirties. The oldest L.A in Oregon on the House of Representative side is in her forties and has been involved in the political process for some time. Another important fact to know is that there are usually two L.A’s in one office. However, there are some offices that only have one L.A and some that have more than two. According to Glassdoor’s website the average salary for a L.A is $44,657. This average is for the whole nation and will vary depending on the state. The highest paid L.A’s are in the national government level and specifically in the Senate. A L.A in the Senate at the Federal level will average $74,787 salary per a year.

There are not many statistics on Oregon politics and definitely not relating to L.A’s. However, it is important to highlight the diversity of people working in the Capitol. There is a variety of people that work in Legislator’s offices. Michele Castro is an L.A for Representative Nosse’s office, District 42. She is of Mexican and Middle Eastern heritage and she is part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) community. According to Castro, “It has taken me twice as long to get here as compared to other people I know who have gotten in quickly” which she feels comes from the fact that she is part of the community of color.

There are still the same issues for minorities in the Capitol as with other jobs. She has also felt discriminated against by people that she knows through subtle ways such as people having a hard time believing that she is actually working in the legislature. However, with each job she says, “… it has gotten better in different ways but is always onward.” and with that she has been able to get more involved in Oregon politics compared to where she started at which was the local level in Forest Grove.

Working at a national level has its benefits. However, it is a completely different atmosphere. Researching L.A’s in the U.S Congress provides an understanding of the differences between the state government and the national government. According to Congressional Management Foundation, the job description of a L.A at the federal level includes tasks such as, drafting press releases, write floor speeches for members, monitors legislative developments within committees, and more. These job tasks are similar to those of the Oregon but are more detail oriented because the scale of people and events is much larger at the national level.

People who have worked as an intern in Washington D.C explained that the idea of a close nit community is not possible in Washington. There are too many people that work in and around the nation’s Capitol. While at the state level there is a group of individuals who know each other and work together everyday to make Oregon or their state better. At the national level, things are different because there are 50 states that are being represented with different needs. There are large gaps between the lobbyists and legislative staffers along with gaps between Legislators. The national level is on too large of a scale to be the tight knit community that state government is.

The state level has large differences compared to the national level. Whether there is a lobbyist, Legislator, or legislative staffer most people know each other. Some people were interns before they became a staffer while others were once legislative staffers and have now become lobbyists. In most of the interviews that were conducted for this paper there were multiple interruptions because people the interviewees knew would pass by and stop to talk. In a way, Oregon politics or specifically the Oregon Capitol is a giant family and all it takes is one relationship to get connected to the family.

This is the case, in part, because L.A’s are one of the key pieces to the political process. According to Warren H. Butler, Assistant to William B. Windall, Member of Congress, “… the problem with adequate and effective staff assistants for both Senators and Representatives appears with a  frequency that stamps it as one of the most important Congressional concerns” which shows how important having a good L.A is to the political process for Senators or Representatives to be successful.

It is important to focus on the L.A’s of Oregon or at the state level because that is an area of politics that most U.S citizens know nothing about. National politics receive most of the attention but state politics is a good place for any citizen to get started in understanding how politics work. L.A’s are one way in which people can access their Legislator. There are many different job titles and job descriptions that are used within this career field. Also there are three times frames that apply to Oregon politics, session, interim and campaign season. Understanding what L.A’s do during these three time periods is important in understanding Oregon legislature.

At the basis of being a L.A there are the simple ideas of applying for the job and meeting the expectations of what the job will demand. According to the Oregon legislative website there are many tasks, qualifications, and expectations of a person applying for a position. Each position will vary to some effect because it is essentially up to the representative that the applicant is applying. The basic job description states, “The legislative assistant works under the supervision of the Senator (or Representative), provides legislative and administrative support, performs constituent casework, and handles general communication tasks” and upon further research there is more to the job then just these basic concepts (Oregon Legislative Website).

As mentioned previously, the staff members job description is at the discretion of whoever they are applying to work for. There are a variety of different staff positions within one office. Ethan Krow, Legislative Assistant for Representative Nosse, District 42, gave an overview of what different job titles he has experienced during his career at the Oregon legislature for the last three years. There are three basic staff that Krow explained, permanent staff, session staff, and part time staff.

Permanent staff works for their member all year. That means that they work during session, which is roughly six months and then the interim which is the time that legislative assembly is not in session. This staff member also works full time during a short session. Permanent staffers have a career with the legislature at this point in their life. Session staff are staffers that work for the representative during the six month session. Once session ends they are no longer needed and are released from their duties. Lastly, there is the part time staff member who only works part time with the members office. In some cases there is more than one part time staff member or in other cases there are no part time staff members.

Those are the basics of staff positions, but knowing what qualifications are needed to get hired is just as important. The only qualification listed on the Oregon Legislative website is that the person applying must have, “A bachelor’s degree or an equivalent combination of experience and education” but did not request any other qualifications. When looking at Washington’s legislative website they had the exact same qualification listed and nothing more. Essentially it is up to the Legislator what they require from the person they are looking to hire.

However, there is a section under the Oregon website that listed the “wanted attributes” of people applying. Under this category there was a much longer list. This list included things such as, excellent oral and written communication skills, organizational skills, ability to prioritize and delegate work, and much more. After looking at the job description and hopefully meeting all the requirements, there is another aspect of the job that is not written anywhere but is very important and valuable to getting hired.

Having experience is one of the key aspects of getting hired as a staff member with a legislative office. This experience needs to be directly related to the legislative process. However, a major aspect of this requirement is talking with people who work there now. Many of the legislative staffers who have jobs now have worked on campaigns for Legislators and have volunteered during session. This type of approach allows a person to get involved and shows that they can do the job well.

The goal of this approach is for a person to work their way into the system and eventually an office. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many people volunteer for multiple legislators and for large spans of time. After speaking to a few of the staffers, it was clear that all of them volunteered with every Legislator they have worked for. This was either during the legislator’s campaign or sometimes it was just helping with a bill. Either way, an essential part of the legislative staff’s job includes volunteering some amount of time in order to get the experience.

After volunteering with a Legislator and applying for the position, the next step is to fulfill the job requirements. Within the legislative staff there are more specific jobs that may be used. A position such as Chief of Staff would be an example. This is still the same concept and includes the same job requirements but uses a different title as well as holds more responsibilities. One Chief of Staff is Kyle Linhares. He works for Representative Gomberg, District 10 and has been in this position since September 2013. The main difference between his job and other legislative staffers was that Linhares is the boss of all the staffers in Gomberg’s office. He oversees them to make sure that they are on task and doing their jobs correctly and how Gomberg would want.

Overall though, the main tasks or requirements of being a L.A includes, things such as scheduling, constituent letters, doing research for bills, handling communication, and more. For each L.A, their job will vary depending on how many staff members there are and what their Legislator expects from them. These jobs are important to the legislative process because they allow the Legislator to stay connected with people and issues that are not directly tied to committees or issues brought up on the Floor.

Alan Fleischman, has been in the legislative process for over 14 years and is seen as an important resource for many people. In most offices there are at least two legislative staff. However, Fleischman works by himself. He works for Representative Barker, District 28. The Representative and him have been together since 2002. When talking to him, it was clear that he cared deeply for his job and the relationship that he has built with his boss. They have been together for so long that Fleischman said, “ I can relay and give a sense of where Barker is on things, such as bills” which provided the evidence of the great relationship he has built over the years.

One of the most important aspects of being a L.A is the communications aspect of the job. This aspect allows the staffer to be the liaison between the Legislator and everyone else. L.A’s deal directly with lobbyists who want to schedule meetings with a member. This is where a staffer holds the most power because they have the authority to allow a lobbyist to see their member or not. As Alan Rosenthal put it, “In order for a bill to pass or even come into existence it takes communication which includes legislative staff’s participation” explaining the authority they have.

Communication is also important when it comes to constituents. Most of the time it is the L.As that answer the phone and get in contact with constituents that are having problems. In Representative Nosse’s office, Krow usually answers the phone and works on creating a list of constituents that are having problems. While the other L.A, Castro, handles all the research, phone calls, and emails relating to getting the solution to the constituents problems. This explains how much authority and responsibility is given to the legislative staff and what goes on behind the scenes that most people never understand or even get a glimpse of.

An idea of what an L.A would do on a daily basis is relating to constituent letters. This is when a constituent sends an email, letter, or calls the representative about an issue they are facing. These types of issues can relate to things such as, a bill that is coming up in committee they do not want to see pass or it could be an issue with not receiving food stamps. In this process, an L.A works with Legislator to write a response to the constituent to help them with receiving food stamps or with letting them know how the Legislator feels about the bill.

Other important aspects of a L.A’s job relates to things such as work sessions. This is when a Legislator has a bill coming up in committee or are carrying a bill over to the floor. These are key moments for Legislators and often need help to prepare. In order to be successful when these moments come in a Legislator’s career, L.A’s help to prepare them. They do this through work sessions which is where the Legislator practices their speech, makes any edits that are needed, have mock question and answer sessions, as well as pooling ideas together to be as prepared as they can be. This usually occurs in district, after hours of a traditional work day or on the weekends.

Experiences like these are what allows an L.A to prove their value. This is important because it allows the Legislator to get prepared for their speeches. An essential piece of this is thinking outside of the box. It is trying to address what could happen during these speeches. Preparing the member for any questions that could come up after their speech is one key aspect of this that is worked on. Another is making sure that all the facts that are used in the speech are verified through the appropriate outlets which could be different organizations or lobbyists. In some cases lobbyists or these organizations are invited to the work sessions to prepare together and verify that they are on the same page. It is a behind the doors aspect of an L.A’s job that not many people know about but is important to highlight.

Another aspect of L.A’s job is attending different events that are held throughout the year. This includes events such as, gallas, district meetings, Town Halls, and fundraising dinners. The idea behind this aspect of the job is networking. In order to get reelected or get bills passed it requires support and people willing to stand with the Legislator. It is often part of the staffers job to help with networking and creating lists of people to help their member.

The most important aspect of an L.A’s job relating to events is helping to create the events. For example, a Town Hall meeting needs to have a location, time, refreshments, setting up tables and chairs, and creating a constituent email with information about the meeting. These events are held after a work day in the district of the member. A lot of work goes into creating a functioning Town Hall and L.A’s are what allow them to come together. These are an opportunity for constituents to talk about a certain topic with their representative and essentially is an open door for people to express their opinions.

Different L.A’s spoke about stepping in for their members when they were unable to attend events. Anna Buzzini works as Legislative Assistant for Representative Reardon, District 48. She explained what she would be required to do if she were to attend an event. She would wear a nametag and explain who she was representing. Usually events are held for certain organizations or ideas. Her job at the event would be to network with new and old people. The focus of her conversations would be based around whatever the event was about. Most of the time she is not required to attend events and if she is then her tickets are paid for through the office. Tickets for events can range anywhere from $70 to $400. The people that are usually asked to go are the governor, representatives, senators, donors, and other heads of state.

This aspect of the job was not something that was discussed elaborately during interviews. However, usually in Hollywood, politics are portrayed as big elaborate events with expensive gowns and dinners. It was made clear from Buzzini that it is more about helping to support a cause that is important to the Legislator and to help establish a better network that will support the Legislator during his or her career. Clarifying this was definitely a way to debunk one of the many myths that Hollywood has created about government.

Throughout the Capitol these different legislative staff positions are held by a variety of women and men. There does not appear to be a priority of men over women. Based on the office’s that were spoken to, men seemed to hold Chief of Staff positions over women, but given the small pool of people interviewed, this may not be the case for L.A positions throughout Salem.

However, according to the Statesman Journal, women who work for the state make roughly 88 percent of what men make. Another key factor is that there are 2300 more women than men working in state government as a whole but there are 9 percent more men than women who are heads of agencies. These statistics provide evidence that there are pay gaps in the capitol between men and women. The Statesman Journal went into further detail, providing the exact numbers for gender pay gap in the heads of state of offices like Kate Brown when she was Secretary of State and John Kitzhaber when he was governor. These offices still had men in leading positions and at higher pay rates, even though they had significantly more women than men working in their offices.

These are everyday concerns for a typical Oregonian and these issues are seen at the state level. However, after speaking to different women working in the Capitol, this issue is not dominant in everyday work. There is always room for improvement but overall L.As are motivated to work for their Legislator and help to change Oregon policies. The women that were interviewed did not feel discriminated against because of gender. That is important to highlight because a few decades ago it was next to impossible for women to work let alone in politics.

Another aspect of Oregon politics is campaign season, as well as in district work. This is a whole other side to politics that moves away from the Capitol and focuses more on the specific area of Oregon. This plays a huge role in politics and an even more important role for legislative staff. Campaigns and in district work opens another door for L.A’s in terms of job titles, job descriptions and their overall purpose. During session, L.A’s may work in district but it is not the main focus of their job. When session is over, this becomes the area of focus whether a Legislator is trying to get reelected or preparing for the short session.

A campaign season for a Legislator is an important aspect of their career. The reason this is important for legislative staff is because during this time a person is usually able to find a volunteer position or even a paid position in order to gain experience that can lead to a job when session begins again. Campaigns are a whole aspect of politics that is not covered in most college textbooks. Many people know nothing about campaigns or what is involved in the process of getting elected.

Krow was willing to explain the different legislative positions during the session and was also able to address the different types of job positions one can get during the campaign season. The first position he mentioned was the Campaign Manager. This position oversees all of the campaign. All of the different managers or directors report back to this person when the campaign is a large scale campaign. However, when it is a smaller campaign, they do things such as scheduling, recruiting volunteers, fundraising, and communications. Krow was a campaign manager for Carla Piluso which is why he was able to explain the different aspects of a campaign.

The other positions during campaigns include Field Director, Financial Director, and Communications Director. Field Director is in charge of communicating with voters. This can be done through phone calls, door to door canvassing, or e-mails, but the end goal is to make sure the voters get talked to. Other aspects of Field Director include organizing, recruiting, and training volunteers and interns.  A Financial Director is in charge of keeping track of the money, focusing on fundraising for the campaign, and managing the campaign spending. Lastly there is the Communications Director. This person would be in charge of all communications during the campaign such as emails, television stations, radio spots, and creating good relations with media outlets.

An example of what a Communications Director would do on a daily basis is working on creating a good relationship with the media. The person would do this through setting up interviews between a media outlet and the Legislator in order to help the media with a story as well as getting their member’s voice out to the community. In some cases, they will represent their member and be the key spokesperson when addressing the media about issues or about campaign information. Another responsibility that may be associated with this job position is writing speeches for the member to present to the different media outlets (Wellstone). This is an essential way to get the campaign recognized by the community.

A key aspect of campaigns that is important to highlight is that they are a chance for a person who is interested in becoming an L.A to do a good job and show what they are made of. If a person does a good job on a campaign, then hopefully their legislator gets elected or reelected. However, if that is not the case but the person did a good job on the campaign, it is not uncommon for them to get hired by a member who was elected. That is why volunteering on campaigns can allow a person to gain access to the network of people working at the Capitol.

That type of situation was how Fleischman received his first job. He put time into a campaign in 2000 but it was clear that they were not going to win. After that other Legislators recognized him and saw the great job he had done on the campaign he was then hired by another office. He specifically began working for Representative Barker and in 2002 managed his campaign, which was meant to be a target race and they won.

According to Complete Campaigns a target race is where, “…[it] target[s] those who will support that specific candidate” meaning that, the campaign is trying to reach a certain group of people. This is a unique concept in campaigns and a good approach to get a member elected. It is the concept of sending certain messages to certain groups of people. There may be many groups of people in a members district but it is trying to reach all of them with a message that they can agree with and relate too so the constituents will want to vote for the candidate (Winning Campaigns).

Entering the field of politics is the first step that most L.A’s do. Gaining the experience as well as the education is what can make a person an ideal candidate. According to Jeffrey R. Biggs, Director of APSA Congressional Fellowship Program, “… insights gained through completing a staff assignment to a committee or personnel staff can enhance the study of the legislative process” demonstrating the importance of work experience in this field for a successful career in Oregon politics.

Even though a degree was often listed as a requirement for the job, there are many L.As that are working on their degrees or do not have one. Hollie and Jordan Conger are Legislative staffers for Representative Buehler, District 54. They are married and are both working on their undergraduate degrees. It has taken both of them more time than the traditional student to get their undergraduate degrees but they are already hired in the career area they are interested in. Krow, who is extremely knowledgable on the legislature as a whole, does not have a degree but has done the work that was needed to get him hired. His experience in different offices and in many different positions has built a resume that is good enough to get him hired.

Another aspect that the Conger’s highlight is the concept of family within the Capitol. Jordan was first introduced in politics by his dad when he was a child. His first office position was working for House District 54 but at the time it was his dad who was the Representative. Jordan helped his dad during campaign season to get him elected and then began working in the office part time to help him out. Eventually he started working full time and then became Chief of Staff in 2011. Since then, he has been working for District 54. His wife Hollie was hired to assist him with scheduling and the basic, secretarial type jobs around the office. According to Hollie, “Jordan directly helps with policy issues, while I make sure the Representative has time to do things” explaining the different tasks they each have in the office.

The sense of family is often seen around the Capitol through the relationships people develop. There are not many lines drawn in the sand in regards to Republicans and Democrats or Lobbyists and Staffers. Everyone works together, and most of the time they are all just trying to make Oregon become a better place for all Oregonians.

During session and campaign season, L.A’s get different opportunities to work in an office or work their way up the career ladder. People gain the experience through volunteering for different Legislators and work on building their resume with experience to get hired. A person does not necessarily need a degree, because at the Capitol, experience means more. Each piece is important and brings with it new responsibilities as well as old ones. However, all three aspects of the job show how important legislative staffers are to Legislators and what a vital role they play in Oregon politics.

Work Cited:

“Alan Fleischman.” Personal interview. 23 Feb. 2015.

“Anna Buzzini.” Personal interview. 23 Feb. 2015.

Biggs, Jeffrey R. “Research, Teaching Heightened by Congressional Experience.” Portland State University. JSTOR, Sept. 1998. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

Butler, Warren H. “Administering Congress: The Role of the Staff.” Portland State University. JSTOR, Mar. 1966. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.

“Campaign Roles and Responsibilities.” CAMPAIGN ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES (n.d.): n. pag. Wellstone. Wellstone, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Congressional Management Foundation, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

Dorchuck, Jerry. “Targeted Political Campaign Communication.” Targeted Political Campaign Communication. Winning Campaigns, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

“Ethan Krow.” Personal interview. 02 Feb. 2015.

“Hollie Conger.” Personal interview. 30 Mar. 2015

“Job Descriptions: House Office Sample.” Congressional Management Foundation.

“Jordan Conger.” Personal interview. 03 Apr. 2015

“Kyle Linhares.” Personal interview. 16 Feb. 2015.

“Legislature Home.” Legislature Home. Washington State, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

“Michele Castro.” Personal interview. 30 Mar. 2015

Murray, Art. “The Most Important Component of The Modern Political Campaign Strategy.” The Most Important Component of The Modern Political Campaign Strategy. CompleteCampaigns.com, 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

“Oregon State Legislature Home.” Oregon Legislature Home. Oregon State, 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

Rosenthal, Alan. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

Hoffman, Hannah. “6 Facts about the Gender Pay Gap in Oregon Government.” Statesman Journal. Statesman Journal, 02 Sept. 2014. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Teixeria, Colleen D. Working in Politics. Washington, DC: Office of Occupational Statistics and Employment Projects, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Labor, 2008. U.S Bureau of Labor. U.S Bureau of Labor, June-July 2008. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

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