February 12, 2009

Down and Out in Washington, DC

By: Elizabeth Nolan Brown

At a Washington, D.C. happy hour thrown by the libertarian magazine, Reason, in early December, one 20-something researcher was discussing her employment situation with a young Cato Institute staffer. She had been hoping to find a new job, but now—economic times being what they were—was thinking it best just to stay put.

“Smart,” the Cato staffer said. “A friend told me last week she’s just going to go back to school and hibernate there until this whole mess is over.”

If you’re thinking these do not sound like people impervious to the economic downturn, you would be correct. It seems the old saw about Washington being recession-proof has gone the way of the conservative majority. While the unemployment rate in D.C. is still lower than in the rest of the country, it nonetheless rose from 3.1 percent in November 2007 to 4.5 percent in November 2008, according to the D.C. Department of Employment Services. (Northern Virginia reported a 1.1 percent increase in unemployment over the year.) For the city’s conservative job seekers, the legendarily insulated District could not have picked a worse time to mirror ‘Real America’s’ trends.

* * *

In Washington, of course, every election cycle brings a certain amount of job turnover, of politicos and policy wonks reeling and rallying with the re-entrenchment of the warring parties. This year, however, the assault on conservatives seems to be particularly strong.

There’s the staff from John McCain’s failed presidential campaign, cast back into the employment pool with the stroke of midnight on Nov. 5. John Thorpe, a 2008 college graduate, spent the summer and fall as an intern in the campaign’s war department. Now’s he looking for a job—any job. “I think I might take a job at a bookstore or something for now, because I need to make money,” he says. The only politically related position he’s been offered since the campaign was a part-time, unpaid internship with the Libertarian Party, which he plans on working a few days a week. He’s also waiting to hear back from the Census Bureau—temp positions collecting data for the 2010 Census pay upwards of $16 an hour.

Things aren’t looking any better for Matt Gall, 22, who moved from Ohio to work for a polling firm conducting research for the McCain campaign and Republican congressional candidates. Half the firm’s staff, including Gall, were let go in November. “It does get kind of depressing at times, but you’ve just got to keep telling yourself that something will be available,” says Gall. After a few months out of work, he’s now interning with the National Taxpayers Union.

Gall still hopes to find work on the Hill, but realizes the odds are against him. “There are a lot of people in my spot [who] have more experience, [who] used to work in Hill offices already,” he says.

He has good reason to worry—competition on the Hill promises to be especially intense this year. More than 50 GOP legislators either retired or were ousted, and with them go all the legislative assistants, press secretaries, aides, and interns who had once called the Hill home. Some of these staffers will find work in the offices of incoming congressional members, but with Republicans down at least 29 seats (eight in the Senate; 21 in the House), the number of open staff spots is no match for the number of positions lost.

“The bear market for Republican talent in Washington may rival the post-election labor market of 1994, when thousands of Democrats who had enjoyed comfortable Hill careers during the four-decade Democratic reign were tossed to the street after the Republican revolution,” wrote Daniel Libit in the Politico last October.

But even the Dems of ’94 didn’t have an outgoing Democratic administration to contend with the same year. Sean Rushton, 35, was director of communication for the U.S. Small Business Administration, an appointee position. His wife also worked for the White House—but she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to work full-time once the baby is born, “so it’s kind of falling on me,” Rushton says.

He was originally interested in moving on to the corporate sector, but is now also looking for work at PR agencies and nonprofits. “Right now, there are a lot of good, quality people out of work, or who will be out of work, so the corporate sector has definitely tightened up,” he says. “I think even in terms of the PR agency arena, and probably the advocacy and nonprofit arena, everybody is—well, no one knows what to expect.”

* * *

As if this isn’t grim enough for the job prospects of conservatives in D.C., there’s the aggravating influence of the country’s severe economic downturn.

“It’s a tough time to be on the right side right now,” says Derek Hunter, federal affairs manager for Americans for Tax Reform and a veteran of the think-tank scene.

“If it were just the fact that liberals are in charge, the money at least would be rolling in to conservative and libertarian organizations to put up a fight. But the economy turning sour and the general sense of uncertainty about the future will, in my estimation, lead to overall donations slowing to most organizations.”

“Endowments, for the organizations smart or successful enough to have them, are being hit in the market, too,” Hunter says. “Add to that the proposed tax hikes, and many organizations face tough times ahead … The think tank world is, or will be, hit across the board.”

The Council on Foundations estimates that endowments lost more than $200 billion in 2008. And things are unlikely to improve—according to an Indiana University Center on Philanthropy study, foundations’ confidence in their ability to raise money was at the lowest level in the study’s ten-year history.

Whitney Garrison, a donor relations associate for the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, attended a meeting for free-market fundraisers (including the Institute for Justice, the Leadership Institute, and the Institute for Humane Studies) sponsored by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation last December.

Speaker John Von Kannon, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, told the assembly that direct mail is more crucial now than ever before. While major donors may be hurting financially and cutting back on their giving, direct mail donors—those who give $1,000 or less—tend to be lagging indicators of recessions, largely unaffected by changes in the market.

Von Kannon was “optimistic,” Garrison says, “but everyone else was pretty quiet, perhaps even hesitant to agree … Nearly everyone said direct mail returns are diminishing.”

So what does this mean for think tanks, research foundations, and nonprofits? Less hiring—and even layoffs of existing staff—is one possibility. Rumors of hiring freezes at organizations around town abound, though exact numbers and plans are hard to confirm.

The Media Research Center, a liberal-bias watchdog group in Northern Virginia, recently laid off staff. The Center for Strategic and International Studies imposed a “soft hiring freeze” last year. And Freedom Watch—which, at its peak, employed 50 staffers and poured $30 million into this year’s political races, according to the Washington Times—shut down entirely in early December.

At the American Enterprise Institute, cost-cutting measures are already underway, according to a source there. The organization is converting its magazine, The American, from a bi-monthly print publication to an online-only rag. At least one full-time editorial staff member will be cut, along with the out-of-house designers and marketing people who worked on the publication. Other full-time staff cuts remain uncertain.

Because the magazine is sponsored by AEI and doesn’t rely on ad sales and subscriptions, the decision had less to do with the general print media malaise than with an overall organizational “pressure to cut back,” the source, who asked to remain unnamed, says. “My sense is that AEI is making pretty dramatic budget cuts all over.”

* * *

“I know a ton of people that have been canned lately,” says political correspondent Tucker Carlson, whose own MSNBC show, Tucker, was canceled in early 2008. “I only know about the small little world in which I live—the media world—but it is really a hard time here. People are being fired and taking buyouts in the prime of their careers. My little slice of America has definitely been affected in a big way, much more than I thought it would be.”

Certainly, the right-of-center media casualties have been adding up in 2009.

Culture11, a conservative Web magazine launched in August 2008—with much fanfare, a stable of young conservative writers lured from other publications, and purportedly ample investment capital—shuttered in late January. (Full disclosure: I was a regular blogger for Culture11.) After a late-afternoon meeting on January 27, its 14 staff members were asked not to return the next day.

“Sometimes there are simple stories,” wrote CEO David Kuo in a farewell blog post. “Culture11‘s is one of them. We raised a certain amount of money last year predicated on the assumption we would raise more money last year. Then the Fall’s fall occurred and we stretched money as long and far as we could without incurring any debts. With no new money in the door the board decided the most prudent thing to do was suspend business operations.”

A few days later, Pajamas Media (launched in 2005 as a loose affiliation of 90, mostly-conservative blogs) announced that it would do away with its blogger ad-network—a pay-per-impression system that provided bloggers with ad-revenue—as of March 31, in order to concentrate more on its video operations. “What this means is that as of April 1, I am officially out of work,” Protein Wisdom’s Jeff Goldstein wrote. “So save going to a pay model, this site will likely have to shut down.”

* * *

In the face of so many obstacles, victims of the conservative purge are reconsidering their job-searching strategies. While many friends and colleagues “took the generic route,” Brian Phillips, a former press secretary for Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), says—dropping off résumés in the House drop box and frequenting the conservative job banks online—he relied mainly on a network of professional contacts he’d built up over the years.

“There are receptions on the Hill, probably 30 every week,” says Phillips. “The Heritage Foundation does quite a few events, so do lobbying organizations. You just go to these things. And if you establish this network continually, consistently, instead of in the last two months before you need a job, it’s there for you whenever you do need a job.”

The strategy seems to be have paid off for Phillips, who accepted a position as a senior manager for media relations at the Chamber of Commerce in early January.

Meghann Parlett, employment placement coordinator for the Virginia-based Leadership Institute, stresses that now is not the time for job seekers to rely on job boards: “They should definitely be working their network. An incoming Hill office is getting hundreds of résumés for maybe five positions.” She also emphasizes the need for job seekers to “be open,” and think about how the skills they’ve learned on the campaign trail or on the Hill translate to other sectors.

Ex-Hill and administration staffers are generally “a great fit at trade associations, membership organizations, those places that are not really nonprofits but more like private sector organizations that represent industries,” she says. “All of these organizations have a political side to them, and a lot of them require Hill experience to go work for them.”

Chris Jones, founder of PoliTemps, a niche staffing agency for the legislative, government, and communications industries, agrees: “A policy person could work in a government agency at the state level. If you’re a field person, maybe you could go into fundraising. You just have to broaden what you’re thinking of. You can’t just say ‘I want to do research for an international think tank, only.'”

He also suggests “taking a break from Washington—getting involved in state and local politics, getting that master’s or law degree.”

Many, it seems, are doing just that.

“I have a lot of close friends who worked in the administration,” says David Barnes, assistant director of the Heritage Foundation’s young leaders program. “The younger ones…they came right after college, worked for a few years, knew that the job was ending in a few months and applied for school. They’re burned out, to some extent—the White House is difficult work, and it can be kind of stressful, with the impression that the world is on your shoulders.”

“I was talking to a colleague recently who is married to a spouse with a solid job, and she’s actually planning on going to Europe for ten days after the administration ends, and to start looking for a job when she gets back,” says Sean Rushton. “I’ve heard a couple people say it would be a good time to switch careers, to finally become a chef or a teacher or something… but clearly, for those of us with children on the way and a mortgage and the like, that’s not an option.”

Some job-seekers are seeking refuge in the states from whence they came. “A lot of them weren’t from Washington, and weren’t really planning on staying, anyway,” says Barnes.

Phillips echoes the sense that perhaps more opportunities lie in voluntary exile. “Most of the people I know,” he says, “have only gotten interviews so far with places outside of D.C.”

Hunter, who runs the networking group First Friday (slogan: People, Politics, Parties), also knows a lot of young, out-of-work conservatives in the District, but says for most of them, going home isn’t an option.

“Most of the people I know came to D.C. to make a difference, not a fortune. Those two roads can intersect, and often do, but since they actually do want to make a difference they’re sticking it out. Unemployment will take them through a good chunk of ’09 and things will improve eventually.”

Most are pretty optimistic, he adds, and “are coping the way they always have: drinking. Retail may be going to hell in a handbasket, but the D.C. bars are thriving.”

“I’d suggest those billionaires who are considering holding back donations because of the stock market invest in rehab centers,” he jokes.

When alcohol and unemployment checks aren’t enough, there are always temp agencies.

PoliTemps is a “way station” for politicos in-between jobs, says Jones. “We see mid- to junior-level appointees, Capitol Hill staff members … refugees from the campaigns. We’ve taken them in … while they’re waiting for that permanent job, while they’re sleeping on their friends’ couches. They need something to pay for that cheap happy hour beer!”

“There will always be opportunities in Washington for smart people,” says Carlson, who—having been here since 1985—has seen his share of electoral turnover and the attending job jumble.

“I imagine some people will probably think it’s best to go back to where they came from, but my advice is to stay in Washington,” he says. “It’s a city that, by its nature, gives people a chance. It gives young people positions of authority, if they’re smart and ambitious and hardworking, more than any other city I’m aware of.”

And, for young conservatives with the inclination to stay open and stay put, this may actually be the perfect time to make a name or make a difference.

“This is actually an exciting time on this side of the aisle,” says Hunter. “People are thinking again, thinking of new ideas, new arguments, new ways of getting to where we want to go. It’s a regrouping time. There will be a purge or organizations and people who leave, but those that stay will form new organizations with new ideas and new ways to convey them, so I think we’ll come back stronger than before.”

-Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a writer and web producer living in Washington, D.C. She blogs at http://elizabethnolanbrown.wordpress.comKatherine Ruddy is a freelance photographer living in Washington, DC. See more of her photos on flickr.com.