Institutional Memories: Prelude

My First Real Job After College (apart from the comic shoppe gig, I mean, which was Fun and Kept Me In Comics but wasn’t really a Proper Career) was working as a Legislative Correspondent for U.S. Senator Pete V. Domenici.

I walked into Domenici’s office in the Senate Dirksen Office Building (it’s the one that was built in the 1950s, and has all the charm of an old high school) on Tuesday, March 20, 1990. My job as a legislative correspondent — a fancy term for “letter writer” that looks really, really great on your very first ever business card, embossed with a gold U.S. Senate seal — entailed drafting the guts of letters responding to New Mexicans who had written to the Senator about public lands, veterans affairs, or government pensions.

I didn’t get to handle any of the hot ticket items, like abortion or gun control or Social Security, or any of the stuff that makes the front page; my busiest and most high-profile issue, at least for a while, was probably over whether the Mexican Spotted Owl should be designated as endangered. But I was officially in The Game now — and from my small but still front row seat I had the chance to see how the Congress worked, and I was learning a lot about the issues, the legislative process, politics, and, even more fascinating, the members of Congress themselves.

Like many young people who come to DC — and I was 22 when I started working in Domenici’s office — I had taken the job “just for a while.” Lots of people come to work in Congressional offices to get a bit of experience in government and the legislative process before going off to law school, but I was one of those odd ducks who had zero interest in becoming an attorney, mainly because I just didn’t have the passion for it. (My interest in the law was derived from, and limited mainly to, detective novels and Batman comics.) In fact, I’m almost embarassed to admit that I really had no plan whatsoever. My intent was simply to do the best I could in my little job, learn as much as I could about government and the legislative process, and then see where I could go from there.

And then I got lucky. Domenici was re-elected to his fourth term in November 1990, and a number of senior staffers jumped to other jobs, leaving open several nice Legislative Assistant positions — the meat-and-potatoes jobs, where you become the expert on a particular issue or issues, and directly advise your Senator or Congressman. Making things even more interesting, there was a new Legislative Director coming in — the person who directs legislative policy, and who serves as the main conduit between the Senator and the legislative staff — who essentially had the opportunity to make her own staff.

To her immense credit, she promoted me and several other of my snot-nosed twentysomething coworkers into those plum legislative assistant positions — an incredibly lucky break that I’m still grateful for to this day (some people kick around in Congressional offices for years without getting one of those legislative assistant positions). There was a shuffling of issues and responsibilities, and I became the lead staffer for labor, welfare reform, job training, civil rights, education, and the arts — all issues I cared for deeply.

But something else also happened. During my year as a legislative correspondent, I had developed a reputation as a wordsmith, mainly through my ability to craft responses to what we called The Headscratchers — those letters you really had no idea what to do with. There was the fellow, for example, who wanted the Senator to alert Geraldo Rivera because he had been duped and drugged (allegedly!) by his much younger girlfriend. Or the guy who sent photos of his naked, flabby body with red Sharpie arrows pointing to the portions of his anatomy where aliens had implanted microchips. That sort of thing. I was pulled aside by the new Legislative Director who informed me that in addition to my legislative duties, I would now be responsible for drafting a number of the Senator’s higher profile floor statements, articles, and speeches.

Suddenly, my “just for a while” job had become a career.

Still to come: St. Pete

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2 responses to “Institutional Memories: Prelude

  1. WendyCinNYC

    That is SO much more interesting than my early jobs, but I also did get a chance at answering strange letters. I worked in advertising, doing TV and print ads for Lexus. As an account person, I sometimes handled Angry Consumer mail.

    Once someone was angry over an ad we did where a raindrop falls and splatters on the hood of the car. Cruelty to raindrops and all that. No photos with it though. Darn.

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  2. Brian Jay Jones

    Hi Wendy:

    My brother once gave me as a gift The Lazlo Letters, a collection of prank letters that comedian Don Novello used to write to public officials and CEOs of major corporations. As much as I appreciated the gift, it just hit too close to home to be funny to me — all I could think was, “Man. I’ll bet some poor 22-year-old staffer got stuck having to answer that one!”

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