Campaigning for new work at D.C. job fair

Democrats pack event, resumes in hand

December 08, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It is hard to be a Democrat these days. It is especially hard if you want to be paid for being one.

After a bruising election cycle in which their candidates lost most of the major races from president on down, throngs of ex-campaigners and soon-to-be out-of-work congressional staffers were more than happy to stand in the rain yesterday waiting to get into a job fair held by a Democratic organization.

There were people who worked for Sen. Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader toppled from his post last month. Someone who spent two months in snowy Alaska working on a Democrat's losing bid for the Senate. There were any number of former Kerryites. Former Deaniacs, too.

There was even Joy Langley, a rarity in this crowd: She actually worked on a winning campaign -- to re-elect Sen. Patty Murray of Washington -- but that didn't lead to a permanent job on the Hill. Clasping a leather folder that contained 80 crisp resumes -- just printed at Kinko's -- the 23-year-old felt pretty confident. It was a great campaign and she had a letter of recommendation from Murray.

The numbers, though, weren't promising: about 1,500 job seekers vs. a mere 80 potential employers, many of whom seemed to be collecting resumes for a job bank rather than offering actual, paying positions.

But one employer at least created some buzz: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's political action committee was there: Did that mean ... she's running in 2008?

No. It doesn't mean anything, said a Clinton staffer, who was not allowed to talk to reporters.

Organized by Democratic GAIN, a group created in 2002 to support campaign workers between gigs, the job fair was a way for Democrats to show they care about their people, even if they can't do something for them immediately, said Simone Ward, the group's executive director.

"Working on campaigns is not the most stable job," she said. "We want to be sure the infrastructure is there to train people and support people."

The organization offers career advice, access to independent health care and training for those involved with progressive causes. Although Ward acknowledged the job market is grim, she said that 60 percent of the people who go through the group's training programs land jobs.

But finding work wasn't easy yesterday.

The room in which the job fair was held -- by night a Southwest D.C. club called H2O -- was packed. People squealed when they saw friends from their campaigns. They politely but firmly jockeyed for positions in lines for the big-name groups like the Democratic National Committee, Emily's List and NARAL Pro-Choice America. The dress code seemed strict (suits, stockings, heels and pearls), and only VIPs (employers) could forgo lines.

Tables with white cloths stood in neat rows. Employers on one side. Unemployed on the other.

Jessica Barelay-Strobel flew from Chicago for the fair. The 22-year-old -- who'd successfully worked to re-elect Rep. Timothy H. Bishop of New York -- waited with a dozen others for a hot table. She wasn't sure if the line was for the Democratic National Committee or the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. Either would be fine.

"Tell me about your work on the campaign," asked an interviewer when she finally sat down. "What were two things you learned on the race? What are your goals?"

It went well, she said of her five-minute interview, but they're not hiring. They'd pass on her resume to campaigns that are gearing up in Virginia and New Jersey.

Another booth, another set of job-seekers.

"I'm going to be honest here," said George Shelton, a partner with the Democratic media firm Strother-Duffy-Strother, to two job applicants. "We're not hiring."

His speech was grim. Next year, there are only going to be six statewide races -- those same races in New Jersey and Virginia. Even if his consulting firm was hired to work on several of these races, it's already got the staff it needs.

He scanned a resume in front of him.

"You worked at Akin Gump!" he said, impressed by the candidate's stint at the venerable D.C. law firm.

He looked further: "You've got a law degree!"

And then a yelp, "You went to Harvard!"

And still, no job.

"There was a time when we could place people like this," Shelton said later. "That guy would be a great asset to the Democratic Party." But there aren't any administration jobs, no Hill jobs. Not much he can do.

But still, job-seekers thought it was worth coming to the fair. Kate Grisard, 24, fresh off a losing congressional race in her home state of Ohio, collected business cards. She knows this is just the beginning of the process. She'll follow up with the people she met yesterday. She's planning to move to Washington.

"It's easier to get a job once you're here," she said.

And, although 2005 will be tough for Democrats, many of the job-seekers were looking to 2006, a year with dozens of governor's races, a slew of Senate races and the entire House of Representatives up for election.

But until then? No one seemed willing to switch parties. And, the packets handed out by Democratic GAIN did include a fact sheet showing how to get unemployment compensation in all 50 states.

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