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LegBranch conversations: An interview with Jaime Harrison

In this edition of LegBranch conversations, Marian Currinder interviews Jaime Harrison about his new book, Climbing the Hill, co-authored with Amos Snead. Harrison and Snead, longtime staff members of Democratic and Republican house leadership teams, wrote this “inspiring, nonpartisan guide” to provide all the hard-won secrets and strategies needed to build a career in local politics or Congress, make a difference, and ascend from an internship to leadership. The book contains practical tips on how to land a job and also create the foundation for a lasting career in public service.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

MC: Let me just start with the question of why you wrote the book. Who did you write it for?

JH: I wrote it along with Amos Snead, my coauthor. We wrote it for congressional staffers. One thing that I found after leaving Capitol Hill, I was spending, I would say 20% of my work week having coffees with staffers. They were seeking advice on how to navigate the Hill, how to move up, how to get a job in a leadership office, how to leverage their experience to work on a committee. Then, also, staffers who are looking at transition from the Hill to something else and figuring out what are the options outside of Capitol Hill. How could they go into the administration?

Amos and I noticed that there was not a book that was just a comprehensive guide from a staffer’s perspective on how to navigate the Hill. So, we moved forward, and it was a five year journey because we started it and then stopped because life got in the way. Amos has a few kids. I had a kid, and was working as Chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party. Finally, we hired an agent. She got us a publisher, and they said, “Okay, you have four or five months to get this done.” So, rubber hit the road, and we were able to get it done and to the publisher.

MC: How about a little bit about how you climbed the Hill, your journey from intern to leadership staff?

JH: Yeah, interesting climb. I first, I would say that the seeds of this started when I was actually in high school. It was 1992. I was volunteering with my first campaign, but that was also the year that Jim Clyburn won his historic race to the House of Representatives and became the first African American since reconstruction to represent South Carolina in the Congress. I had invited him shortly after the election to come to my high school to induct me as the president of the National Honor Society. When I met him afterwards, I said, “Congressman, I would love to work in your office one day.” He said, “Oh, that’s great, Jaime, but I want you to go to college, and what we’ll do first is have you intern in the office,” and I said, “Okay, that’s a good deal.”

So, I got into college. Then, the year after my freshman year, I actually got an internship in Senator Hollings’s office. It wasn’t until the summer after my junior year that I applied to Congressman Clyburn’s office as an intern from the Congressional Black Caucus. I just loved it. Both times, I worked my butt off just to … I was like a sponge and soaked it all up. I wanted to go to hearings. Anytime I could write something, I wanted to write it. So much so that because of both internships, fast forward, graduate from college, probably two years out of college, I got a call from Senator Hollings’s office asking me if I would be interested in the LA position for education in the office.

But at the time, I was the CEO for a nonprofit and decided I wasn’t ready to go on the Hill yet, so I turned it down. Then, I get into law school. While I’m in my second year of law school, I get a similar call from Congressman Clyburn’s office. He had just been elected vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and he was looking for somebody to work on leadership and some of his appropriations work for him. They remembered me and kept up with me and thought I would be perfect for it even though I was in the middle of law school, which I reminded them of. The Congressman said, “That’s okay. We’re close to Georgetown. We’ll work out your schedule.”

Then, the rest is history. I joined the staff as he was locking it up with the leadership in the House Democratic Caucus. He brought me along with him. So, in 2006, he became chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. Then, he asked me to serve as executive director. I was the first African American and youngest person to serve in that role. Then, because of the 2006 election, he became Majority Whip. So, I ran the whip operation. It was my job as floor director to make sure we had the 218 votes to pass any bill that hit the floor.

So, I did that for a few years, and then I left to go to private sector for a little while, then came back to South Carolina in 2012 to run for Chair of South Carolina Democratic Party, which I was for four years. Then, I ran for DNC chair unsuccessfully, but because I helped Tom Perez, Tom asked me to become the associate chair of the DNC, which is where I currently serve.

MC: I know that Congressman Clyburn and Senator Hollings were mentors along the way, but did you have any mentors at the staff level? Can you talk a little bit about the importance of building relationships on the Hill at the staff level?

JH: That’s such a great point. So, I did, and probably the person that I looked up to the most was Congressman Clyburn’s chief of staff, Yebbie Watkins.

MC: Who’s still there, right?

JH: Yeah, who’s still there. I talk to Yebbie probably once or twice a week at minimum just to run by him some things I’m thinking in terms of politics. He has been almost like a big brother to me in many ways. As a political sounding board for major decisions I’ve made in my life based on my career, but also personally, it’s been a very tremendous relationship and one that I highly value. That’s something that we say in the book. We encourage staffers to develop political mentorships, have it be with the members themselves or also with other staff members who have successfully navigated the Hill and kind of figured out how the place works.

MC: Speaking of relationships, you mentioned your coauthor, Amos Snead, a former Republican staffer. I think in the book, you describe your Hill relationship with Amos as being more or less sort of a working one, and that you became friends after you left the Hill. Can you talk about that dynamic a bit and whether you found many opportunities for Democratic and Republican staffers to forge strong relationships? Or, does it just depend on what office you’re in?

JH: Well, the one thing that, and this a lesson that I learned very early on when I joined Congressman Clyburn’s staff, is that even though you are different parties, you don’t allow that to define your friendships and relationships. Congressman Clyburn always had really good productive relationships with members on the other side. I tried to model after his behavior. So, I met Amos because he worked for the minority whip, Roy Blunt when I worked for majority whip Jim Clyburn.

Then, when I started thinking about this book and the idea of this book, I talked to my wife. She said, “You know what would be an even better idea is if you could co-write this with a Republican.” I started thinking of people who I had relationships with who I liked, who had similar backgrounds and demeanors to mine so the book would have that flow. Amos was the first person that came to my mind. He grew up in Alabama, working class family there, didn’t have political connections, similar to me, but came to Washington, DC with a lot of hope and optimism.

He and I, we just get along famously. It’s a no brainer. I talked to him about the idea, and he was very receptive to it, so then we started working on it. But, even outside of my relationship with Amos, when I was chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, I forged a friendship that I think most people would say was unlikely with the chair of the Republican party, Matt Moore.

We do profiles in the book, and one of the profiles is of Matt Moore. Matt, again, very similar background, grew up in the South, a poor working class family. He didn’t have connections, and he worked his way up the ranks of the Republican party. There’s something about being in a position that very few people understand the dynamics of, even though we were on different sides of the aisle, being a chair of a party, of a state party is a very unique experience.

MC: I’m sure.

JH: Yeah, there’s not many people that you can commiserate with as it relates to the challenges and frustrations. So, Matt and I would start going to lunch once a month. Then, we started doing things together. We worked on a resolution, constitutional resolution together. We visited a prison together, and we’re currently working on an initiative to tackle the issue of gerrymandering. I often believe that even though you may take different paths and different roads, for many folks, the destination is still the same. So, that’s the way I look at it. You have to look past the positions that we all have in politics. Look at what are the underlying interests and values. If you can find commonality there, you can get a whole lot more done, and you can do it in a way that’s civil and responsible.

MC: When you think about your time on the Hill, what changed most during that time? What remains constant?

JH: I think the lack of civility is something that I sort of saw the devolution of every cycle. It became a very antagonistic place where I remember when I first joined Clyburn’s staff, the unwritten rule in the South Carolina delegation, despite people being of different party affiliations, was that you would never go into another Congressperson’s district to campaign against them, that you would always try to put South Carolina first.

We saw, and I think it was the 06 or 08 cycle, where that was starting to break. As a result, you could see the civility and the respect that was in the state delegations slip away. I saw that not only with the South Carolina delegation, but across the Congress.

MC: Campaigning in an open seat race, yes, but instances where members are actually campaigning against other sitting members seems new to me.

JH: It’s really a sad moment right now in politics. It’s very, very toxic, and that was part of the impetus behind this book as well. Amos and I wanted to demonstrate that Democrats and Republicans can still get together and do things in a positive manner. So, you’ll see in the book that it’s not a partisan hit on one side or the other. It’s about how Democrats and Republicans can really make a difference.

MC: Do you worry about the partisanship or polarization driving people away from wanting to work on the Hill? Or, I guess the flip side of that is that it’ll attract partisans who want to work on the Hill.

JH: Yeah, I am worried about that. I’m worried about the lack of cooperation on basic things. I can tell things are bad when you can’t pass a transportation bill when it’s just about fixing roads and bridges and potholes without it getting political. It tells you that we have hit an all time low. We have to figure some way out of that. Listen, people will say, “Well, Jaime, you’re the chair. You’ve been the chair of the Democratic party. You’re the associate chair for the national party,” and that’s true.

But, I tell people all the time, “Before I’m a Democrat, I am an American. If I see that there’s something that I’m doing or my party’s doing that is not in the best interest of this nation or in the best interest of the state, I am one to be able to stand up and say it and take, sometimes, the political heat from my side because of it, because I think it’s the right thing to do.” I would just hope that more people can start to look at the world in that manner.

MC: In the book, you also talk about the importance of knowing how to navigate ethical and personal dilemmas on the Hill. Do you have any examples that you can share? Do you want to expound on that a bit?

JH: I think many times the Hill is a microcosm of greater society. So, everything that you can find in greater society, you will find on the Hill. There are times in which your boss or a boss or a colleague, a member of Congress may not be doing something on the up and up. One thing we want the staffers to know is that, yes, you should be loyal to the people you work with and the person you work for, but that does not mean that you should do anything that is not legal. You shouldn’t do anything that you’re not ultimately comfortable doing.

That’s very important. There are mechanisms in the House where folks can turn. That’s also a good reason to have a mentor on Capitol Hill, so as you’re facing those type of challenges, you can bounce off what’s the best path forward for you. Then, there are other things we talk about in the book. For example, understanding the dividing line of being an official staffer, but still getting involved in campaigns. Sometimes, you’ll see people not really walking that line in the best manner. Either a member of Congress or a staff member will get in trouble.

We try to tell people to stay as far away from the line as they can and make sure they’re clearly on the side of what the ethics rules and what the campaign finance rules allow for them to do. We talk about the Hatch Act and what that means. So, we try to provide those type of parameters as well because many times you don’t just naturally understand those things or get them. So, we want to make sure that in the book, we’ve covered them so folks are aware.

MC: When you look at the Hill, it’s a pretty unique work environment, so how did your Hill career equip you for a career off the Hill? What would you tell people the important skills are that you learned on the Hill that you can take to another job, whether it’s in politics like you’re doing right now, or nonprofit work, or corporate, or anything?

JH: Many of the skills that you pick up on the Hill are transferable. The understanding how to negotiate, which is something that we use all throughout our lives, not only in terms of our careers, but also in our personal lives. How you conduct yourself, how you move past looking at just party positions and look at what are the underlying interests and values so that you can build common ground. In law school, I kind of got an understanding of it, but working on the Hill, I actually started acting on it. That type of experience is really, really important.

The other thing I would say is that loyalty, again, is a very, very important thing. Also having a clear definition for what your job is, is also really important. Sometimes, we find that there’s a lot of … in our lives and sometimes in our jobs, some of mission creep, but on the Hill, it’s very important that if you have defined responsibilities that you focus on what those responsibilities are before you start to reach out to do other stuff, because it could have direct impact on other things if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, and you’re not doing that well.

I would say that the number one thing, I believe not only on the Hill, but for young people just thinking about their career, they need to figure out what is it that they’re passionate about? I was able to explore what my true passions were on the Hill. You’re interacting with a lot of committees, and you see all the legislation. There were just certain things I was more interested in. I saw that when I was more interested in something, I did a better job of working on it because it became my passion. I think passion is a really, really important part of the formula for being successful in your career. I think for young people that’s such a hard challenge to figure out, well, what should I do?

My answer is always figure out what it is that you’re passionate about, what you really, really are interested in, then build from there.

MC: I also liked your advice where you say that some people aren’t going to like the Hill, but that’s valuable also, because you do it, and you realize, okay, that’s not for me, and you learn something from that as well.

JH: That’s exactly right. Sometimes, it’s important to test, is this for me? The Hill is not going to be for everybody. It just isn’t. You have a lot of different members with a lot of different personalities. You’ve got some members who are policy driven, some who are constituent service focused, some who just like the gamesmanship of politics. So the way they operate on the Hill is very different based on what it is that they’re really driven by. So, each congressional office is not the same. Everybody’s relationship with their members is not the same because of all those varied differences.

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Topics: Congressional Staffing
Marian Currinder
Marian Currinder is a permanent staffer of the U.S. House of Representatives' Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress as of December 2019. ...