Mr. Smith goes to Washington
September 30, 2010 11:42 AM   Subscribe

How did those of you with political or policy type of jobs get your feet in the door? Whether its campaigning, non-profit, policy or anything else political related, how did you get your start? More of course in the fold.

As a recent college grad with ambitions for law/grad school, I have essentially a year off from school. I have an extensive work history with supervisory roles and am in my mid 20's. I feel as I shorted myself during my years at University due to having to work full time while in school to the extent of not doing an internship. I'm attempting to do some campaign volunteering this election and hopefully will be doing more then knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes, but if that's what it takes so be it. Ideally, I'd like to work in some capacity in politics of the left. Any suggestions for places to seek this type of employment would be much appreciated as well as how you great meta folks did what you did to get where you are.
Thanks for your time and responses!
posted by handbanana to Work & Money (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
hopefully will be doing more then knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes

That's campaigning at the entry level. Show that you can do that, and then maybe they'll let you make calls. Then maybe they'll let you call some important types, and then maybe an important type will give you a staff position.

At least, that's how it worked for me. I see so many college educated interns come in with ideas that they're too qualified to knock on doors and stuff envelopes, but that is campaigning. Talking to voters and people who influence voters.

As for policy stuff, you start with internships where you... stuff envelopes and call offices to see if they received the stuff in the envelopes you stuffed. Make friends. Prove you're confident and idealistic, then call the people you meet in your travels.
posted by Michael Pemulis at 11:57 AM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I don't have one of those jobs, but I work with people who do. The key seems to be relentless devotion, obvious intelligence, and willingness to work 18 hours in the rain for recognition in the form of stale donuts. I now know five or six of them in politics and they all did it via the campaign volunteer route; the non-profit people worked their way up as volunteers while getting Master's degrees. It seems like the tail is far longer in politics - a higher percentage of people actually get money, relatively soon - but the money is better/more consistent over the long run in non-profits. Lots of people seem to switch from one to the other when their kids are in high school.
posted by SMPA at 12:00 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Michael Pemulis has it.

I would add even basic computer skills may be a helpful differentiator on local campaigns. Most candidates have Excel or Access files of donors/possible voters/mailing lists they constantly need to mine for data. If you can help here, you may skip a few steps.

The same goes for sending out email blasts, troubleshooting office printers/computers, or setting up phone banks.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:04 PM on September 30, 2010

As a former journalist now working as a writer-researcher for a mid-sized political non-profit, I would suggest thinking about it in a different way: what do you like to do, and how can you leverage those skills to help the political party/tendency/cause with which you are sympathetic? From the DNC to the Sierra Club, these organizations function like all others. They need computer techs, new media experts, accountants, lawyers, researchers, human resources folk, etc.

Of course, there are people who have careers in this field that develop straight out of political organizing and campaigning, and most of them get their start by stuffing enveloping, knocking on doors, and proving themselves mature and reliable. They eventually get promoted and start leading the same efforts. If that's what you're interested in, then just keep doing what you're doing and it'll all come together. I work with people like this and they seem to enjoy it, but it's not for everyone, and it's a bit harder to make a living than if you have more broadly marketable skills.

For now, do what you can to develop useful skills even if that means working in an unrelated field, and then just keep your eye open for appropriate jobs.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 12:06 PM on September 30, 2010

For legal policy jobs, no need to stuff envelopes. It's substantive from the get-go (although you'll have to do the legal research equivalent of stuffing envelopes, sometimes.) Go to a good law school, get good grades, do substantive internships with the kind of organizations you're interested in, then fight your way into a job.
posted by yarly at 12:09 PM on September 30, 2010

I came in here to say knock doors. And join your party and attend its meetings, and socialise with members.
posted by By The Grace of God at 12:18 PM on September 30, 2010

I have a legal policy job. I got it the way you get any job you want: personal networking.

I had been a public interest attorney for many years and was trying to get into policy advocacy. I had a whole networking plan in place (with spreadsheets, calendars, supporting documentation I talked about it in this thread) and I was volunteering with a couple places. What worked, however, was simply socializing with the people I had worked with as a public interest attorney and with people who served on boards at public advocacy organizations. We talked shop and I made sure to mention to them that the time had come for me to go back to policy work (which I had done briefly in law school and even more briefly on committees at an agency where I worked). Eventually, one of them emailed me to say the organization where he was a board member was hiring and if I was interested, he'd pass my resume along.

Prior to getting that email, I had been applying all over the place, but rarely even getting interviewed. has lots of threads on networking, and I'd suggest you look at them because I think it really will be the critical part to what you're doing. We bring in a couple of interns every year and even though our organization is waaaaaaay down on the "sexy list" (We're not the Innocence Project or the Shriver Center), we get more interest than we can use. You'd be surprised, too, at the strength of the resumes of interns we don't even interview.

Volunteering with a campaign is a great way to meet people with connections at the sorts of organizations you're interested in working for. It's a small world in the non-profit liberal working world; you'll very likely meet people who will be happy to help you reach your goal.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:33 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

hopefully will be doing more then knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes

And hopefully you will not express that to anyone after this. Really. It will not serve you well. Ed Gillespie (not your side of the aisle, I know) worked in the basement of the RNC making fundraising calls in his twenties well before he was RNC chairman.

You do it by working like a horse, having incredible physical stamina, doing what you are told as well as figuring out what to do without being told, being willing to do anything, not whining, living on cheese cubes and crackers, not going to lunch, being nice to people who treat you like crap, being nice to those who are nice to you and looking out for them when you can, wearing very comfy shoes, knowing who's who, being an outstanding writer and public speaker, leveraging whatever special skill you have while still doing everything else, and, of course, loving the game. And make sure you speak carefully of the other party, because there are a lot of cross-party friendships and marriages. I've known a DNC-RNC couple, for just one example.

I started by raising a whole lot of money.

MeMail if you want.
posted by jgirl at 12:49 PM on September 30, 2010 [7 favorites]

Graduate training schemes at one of the worlds biggest public affairs and lobbying consultancies followed by a stint with a global law firm. Note that this puts me on the commercial advisory side (government relations) rather than in the party apparatus per se but this suits me fine. Mefi mail me if you want more details although I'm UK rather than USA. Good luck
posted by dmt at 12:59 PM on September 30, 2010

I went from unpaid internship, unpaid campaign stint, a paid internship, a paid campaign position, paid part-time internship while working part-time at Barnes and Noble, shitty job for a campaign consultant to my current gig, which I would describe as maybe advanced-entry level if that makes sense at a major nonprofit public policy group.

My advice: If you can get a paid internship or campaign job, take it, even if it's part time. If you can only find unpaid internships or campaign gigs, work part time somewhere else like a restaurant. Or try to get a gig on the Hill - they pay crap but they look good on your resume.
posted by kat518 at 1:09 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have done a lot of work in politics, on the left side of the fence, and am currently doing so. I have some openings in a few different places in the country. Memail if you like and we can discuss if I know of anything in your area, or if you are willing to relocate.
posted by fyrebelley at 2:31 PM on September 30, 2010

Read the DC Interns blog as a cautionary tale against the kind of attitude you should not bring with you when networking, interviewing, and actually working in politics.
posted by evoque at 5:32 PM on September 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Start by volunteering on your local campaign. Don't tell anyone you want to do "more" than knock doors. Show up when you agree to show up, knock your doors and then come back for more. When you're done knocking doors, go back to the office and enter data. Repeat and repeat and repeat. If you are reliable and a quick learner and you don't complain you will be noticed and that can eventually lead to a job.

I now work as a political appointee in the Obama administration. I started out after graduating from college with an internship at a campaign organization. I did a good job and they offered me a job. After a year of grunt assistant work, my boss asked me what I wanted to do next. I said I wanted to be an opposition researcher and she helped me get a job with a consulting firm. After a year of doing THAT, I was offered a job on the nascent Obama campaign and the rest is history. It was a lot of hard work and late nights and shitty pay but I loved (almost) every minute of it.

Politics is hierarchical. Most people get where they want to be by working their way up and, in my experience, hard work is generally rewarded. Good luck. Memail me if you want more specific information.
posted by fancypants at 7:44 PM on September 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Here's what I've said here previously about doorknocking. I have a job in politics with a desk and a window. I wear a suit to work. I work for an organisation with a cause I believe in. Most days I come home feeling as though I've achieved something.

It's still not as good as doorknocking.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 8:09 PM on September 30, 2010

These previous threads all have info on the standard Hill/campaign jobhunting resources (Democratic GAIN, EMILY's List, Tom Manatos, blahblahblah) if you want to check them out, but I have to agree with everyone above who says you have to start at the bottom and be willing to do anything. Nobody is too good to knock on doors and make phone calls, and the people who are willing to do this stuff are the ones who get appreciated. I also second the idea of showing up to your local committee meetings - great way to meet elected officials and people who know what's up in this field.

I typed up a long thing about my meandering 4-year tour through campaigns and Capitol Hill but I kind of feel ooky about posting it all publicly, so I'm going to Memail you, hope that's ok.
posted by naoko at 9:09 PM on September 30, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, Thanks guys for all the responses and thread links! Sorry it took me a while to return to the thread.

I'm not against the grunt work, trust me. I know its coming with the territory and I plan on making the best of it. I'm well aware of hard work, I worked full time while going to school full time.

Crush-onastick - Thanks for the link, networking is pretty new to me. I realize the importance of networking, and I've begun becoming comfortable with mentioning what my goals are in terms of finding new employment (I was afraid of the same backlash from my boss, but she understands at this point I'm not advancing in my position, and other opportunities are on the horizon). I will memail you with a few questions if you don't mind.

JGirl - I totally understand cross party relationships, and I don't intend to view one side as an enemy. My politics just fall to the left of the political spectrum. Check your memail.

Fyrebelley - Check memail, thank you.

evoque - That blog was EXTREMELY entertaining. Felt a bit bad for some of the interns as they are just unaccustomed to the professional work environment, but was humorous none the less.

Fiasco da Gama - Thanks for the link. I hope you don't mind me memailing you in regards to what you do now.

Naoko - Thank you for the links, I'm aware of some of those lists, but some are new. Thanks for memailing me. Check yours.

Ask.Metafilter folks, Thanks for your great responses! If you have anything to add, comment on, or give some advice I would greatly appreciate it! You ladies and gentlemen are great.
posted by handbanana at 5:42 PM on October 1, 2010

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