The Supplicants

by Dave Jamieson | December 24, 2008

For Cecelia Prewett, the phone calls and e-mails began pouring in immediately. On November 6, her former boss, Representative Rahm Emanuel, had just been named chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama. Suddenly, it seemed everyone Prewett had ever met in Washington was getting back in touch with her. Her inbox filled with notes from well-wishers. Her cell phone rang so incessantly that she had to turn it off at work. When she logged onto Facebook (her profile mentions her previous work as Emanuel's spokesperson), she saw that she was getting pummeled with friend requests--and not just from D.C. climbers. She had new admirers from around the globe, including Europe and South Korea. One pushy New Yorker made three failed passes at Prewett before she blocked him, and an enterprising Frenchman sent her an open letter of counsel ("lettre ouverte a Monsieur Obama"), in the apparent hope that she would slip it to the incoming president.

"It was absolutely ridiculous," says the 37-year-old Prewett, now a vice president at the American Association for Justice, who was "with Rahm before being with Rahm was cool."

In recent weeks, just about all of Emanuel's staffers, current and former, have found themselves under similar assault from new friends, old friends, and friends of friends. Many of the calls and e-mails seemed to follow a suspicious pattern: an initial show of excitement (Did you have any idea he was in the running?); some strained small talk (Is the Rahm dead fish story really true?); and, finally, the business at hand--resumés. "There's a good selection of people who want to know if I can get their resumé into the hands of the right person," says John Borovicka, a municipal bond banker in Chicago who was a top aide to Emanuel for several years. "That's followed quickly by the question of whether I have any inaugural tickets."

If career jockeying is an age-old sport in Washington, then Democrats are now caught in the throes of World Cup fever. With Obama headed to the White House, 22 seats picked up in the House, and at least seven more in the Senate, Democrats are staring slack-jawed at the best political job market they've seen in at least a generation. Add to that the groupie-level enthusiasm for the incoming president, along with the worst private-sector employment numbers in 14 years, and you wind up with plenty of Democrats who are worried they may get trampled by their friends in a race down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The hysteria is particularly acute among the more spry Democrats, say, 35-ish and under. There are the new kids on the block: Obama's sprawling campaign drew on the energies of thousands of youthful staffers and volunteers from around the country, many of whom now feel entitled to a share of the spoils. Then there are the junior Beltway wonks who toiled through the dark days of Washington: Aside from the House and Senate gains in 2006, these young politicos have known nothing but electoral defeat and poor employment prospects since they first arrived on the Hill. Now, the problem is no longer a dearth of quality jobs. Quite the opposite: It's as if too many opportunities beckon. There's the Obama administration! There's the House majority! There's the nearly filibuster-proof Senate!

Even lobbyists are trying to get in on the fun, despite the president- elect's pledge to make it difficult for them to walk freely in and out of the revolving door. Frightened by the prospect of missing out on an epoch-making presidency, some current Democratic lobbyists are now laying plans to bolt for the Hill, where they'll undergo a roughly two-year delousing process, and then gun for a job with the administration. "You think of Kennedy and the sixties, and the people who were part of that," says one starry-eyed campaign staffer, predicting an exodus from K Street.

Add in an untold number of bandwagon-hoppers who are eager to ditch their recession-plagued, non-political jobs to become a part of Camelot Redux, and the result is a Democrat free-for-all. "I was trying to explain this to my mom the other day," says a senior Democratic campaign official. "Imagine you have a dog pound. You've had these puppies in this pound for years and years, all of them eating the same kibble. But then they're let out of the pound, and they've got a lot of different opportunities to eat whatever they want. At the beginning, there's going to be a little cooperative feel to it. But, at some point, it's going to be every man for himself."

 

 

Even in this cutthroat environment, young Dems quickly learn not to make a show of their ambitions. This is part of the etiquette of job-seeking in a No Drama Obama administration. "Right now, it's that first string of e-mails going around--the 'Hey, congratulations' kind of e-mails," explains one young D.C. Democrat, who works on congressional campaigns. "You start with the soft stuff. " (Like other administration job seekers quoted in this story, he spoke on condition of anonymity: "I don't want to say anything that hurts my own prospects.")

Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz, who was around for Bill Clinton's transition and has found himself informally advising administration job seekers in the last few weeks, says a combination of aggressive networking and feigned modesty is the key to success. "You have to understand, little of this comes to you entirely on merit. And yet, nobody likes somebody who insists or demands that they deserve it. So you have to find the balance between these two."

There are no easy ways to get one's resumé on top of the pile. Aside from knowing someone who's close with one of Obama's early appointees, the surest bet is to know a member of the transition team. Every few days after the election, Obama's team would blast out a press release naming another handful of new team members. Whenever these names became public, Hill staffer e-mail groups took notice. "Someone would always send out an e-mail: 'Do you know anyone on this list?'" says a Democratic lobbyist. Not once did the lobbyist see a response to that question. "If I do know someone, I'm not going to say anything," she explains.

Job seekers recognize that everyone else is angling for a post-election gig--even those who already have desirable jobs--which is why networking itself can be perilous. Rabinowitz has been counseling job seekers to step lightly around just about every Democrat they know, including close friends and roommates. "Someone you're asking to make a call on your behalf may not have known about the opening, and they may have somebody in mind who they think is a better pick. "

The lobbyist offers a case in point. She heard from an old friend who said some plum jobs were going to open up on a particular congressional committee. The old friend wanted to know if the lobbyist could make a few calls and put in a good word. The request got the lobbyist's wheels turning. "I'm thinking, I could do that job," she says. "Maybe I should put in a call for myself."

 

 

Rabinowitz says a job seeker will know immediately whether a connection can help by how many calls he or she makes on the job seeker's behalf. (Telling--but increasingly common--is none at all: The lobbyist used to arrange informational interviews for friends of friends whenever she could. "Now, I'm not going to use my chips for somebody like that," she says. "I know that sounds bitchy, but the stakes are just too high.") The worst sign, Rabinowitz says, is when a possible connection steers the job seeker to the online application process.

That would be Change.gov. "I've been referring them all to Change.gov," says Aaron Fischbach, a former Hill staffer who experienced a surge in popularity when his old boss, Tom Daschle, was tapped by Obama to be the secretary of Health and Human Services. Within just five days of going live after the election, the website had received more than 140,000 job applications, making it about as good a portal to the White House as Monster.com.

Many of those applications to Change.gov no doubt have come from Chicagoland. "I think there's a general perception among people in Chicago that it doesn't get any better than it does here, as far as learning how politics works on a door-to-door level," says Borovicka, who's heard from many of his former Chicago-area interns who are now looking east. "This is the first time people are actually considering leaving."

Dan Shomon was campaign manager during Obama's 2000 run for the House, and his relationship with the president-elect goes back to the statehouse, where he served as Obama's staffer. In recent weeks, Shomon has heard from so many hyper-aggressive jostlers that he had to create a log to keep track of all the correspondence. Since the night of November 4, he's handled more than 600 phone calls, e-mails, and text messages from more than 150 people who are fishing for one thing or another, including an estranged former girlfriend he dated in college in 1986. (Admittedly, not all of them are gaming for a cabinet slot--two parties wanted to hook the Obamas up with a shelter dog.) The very morning after the election, Shomon got an urgent message from a woman he hadn't talked to in years. He quickly responded, worried she might be ill. "I think she wanted to be social secretary to Michelle Obama," says Shomon. The woman later called back to apologize. "Ninety-nine percent of politicians would trade for these overzealous supporters," Shomon says. "Still, I have a life, too, and they have to be sensitive to that."

Shomon shouldn't count on resuming that life anytime soon: Most Democrats agree the jockeying will only get worse as they head into winter. After all, the more positions Obama fills, the more people there are to network with. Resumepolishing will soon give way to backbiting, and anyone who ever knew anybody headed to the White House will be hearing from acquaintances old and new.

"It's been a steady stream--I hope it dies down," Shomon says, sounding a bit weary as he wades through his e-mails. "Just today, a guy told me, 'I need to talk to you right away--it's urgent.' So I know it's definitely got something to do with Obama."

Dave Jamieson is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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By Dave Jamieson

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