Why you should care
Because it’s all about picking up the pieces after the bomb goes off.
These days, Tucker Martin is proudly employed as a media strategist at Doug McAuliffe, a Virginia-based political advertising and consulting firm that says its work has “led to 21 U.S. Senate victories, 16 gubernatorial successes and 21 House wins — an overall record of 75 victories in statewide, presidential and congressional races.” Impressive, right?
Well, it was a different story at Martin’s last job, where he was a communications director for Bob McDonnell, the former Republican Virginia governor who was indicted shortly after leaving office, convicted last September and sentenced in January to two years in federal prison for public corruption. Martin, who refers to his former boss’s indictment as a “tragedy,” says the experience was heartbreaking. “You can never forget it,” he says. “Sometimes a few days will pass where work and life put the memories out of mind, but they always come back. It’s a chapter you can’t unread.”
These days, U.S. politics is thick with House members, senators, governors and mayors who have been incriminated or faced scandals of one sort or another. Most recently, Dennis Hastert, the longtime Republican and former speaker of the House of Representatives, was indicted on charges that he lied to the FBI and structured cash withdrawals to avoid bank reporting requirements. (His legal representative didn’t respond to a request for comment.) While it’s no surprise that elected officials may have to wear the scarlet letter after a scandal, it turns out that their staffers also find it hard to recover from the legal spotlight and move on. Some, such as Martin, successfully find new homes. But in a world with so much intense media coverage of scandal, others in politics get stuck in limbo, unable to find work easily.
You have to be able to compartmentalize things the best you can.
Tucker Martin, onetime communications director for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell
Finding out a politico boss has become the target of federal prosecutors is “perhaps similar to the stages of accepting a terminal diagnosis,” says Mark Rom, a politics professor and associate dean at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Staffers go on to experience dismay, anger, despair and resignation, he notes. But, first, the emotion they usually tend to feel is shock. That was likely the case earlier this year when Republican Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock was forced to resign after it was revealed that he misused campaign cash and taxpayer money to subsidize an extravagant lifestyle, including some money that went toward transforming parts of his Washington office to resemble the hit PBS show Downton Abbey. (A media representative for Schock didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Then there’s the office of Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who’s only the 12th senator to be indicted while in office. He’s facing 14 criminal counts, including eight counts of bribery, and while Menendez didn’t respond to a request for comment through his office, he’s publicly vowed to reporters he’s “not going anywhere.” Whether his staff stays is another question. They’re “loath to discuss such matters,” Rom says, who adds, “It’s safe to assume that many of the staffers are making inquiries regarding new positions.” (Attempts to reach his staffers either went unreturned or were unsuccessful.)
Menendez’s team is certainly in a stressful and hapless situation, but there are the ripple effects that reach well beyond that office’s inner circle. Regardless of what the staff knows about the situation — some may have inside knowledge, others may have been unaware or kept in the dark — constituents are still depending on the office to keep taking their calls and serving their interests. “You have to be able to compartmentalize things the best you can,” says Martin. “What’s critically important is trying to ensure that life goes on … there is the day-to-day work of governing that has to occur.”
Given how intense these positions can be and seeing as how these offices often come under public scrutiny — even before something goes wrong — many staffers develop intense loyalties to their boss and may even react to federal charges as they would a funeral. Indeed, Martin says he and other staffers remain close with McDonnell despite his former boss’s conviction. (A rep for McDonnell didn’t respond to a request for comment.) “Staffers tend to work extremely hard, long hours for their bosses and they do tend to idolize them,” says Steve Jarding, a longtime Democratic strategist and Harvard professor. “There is disbelief and sadness before there are thoughts about what such a thing does to their own personal futures,” he adds.
But that time eventually comes, and working for someone who’s been indicted certainly hurts a person’s resume, experts say, even though in most instances, staffers have nothing to do with the alleged wrongdoing. The best strategy for staffers is to be honest about their work history, notes Martin, especially when a future employer can conduct a simple Google search. “It’s a matter of public record,” he adds. “I think staffers will find that people are far more understanding and sympathetic.”
Whether or not there’s ultimately a federal indictment, being a political staffer is inherently risky. In many cases, if a politico advances into higher office, the odds are their staffers rise in the ranks as well. But the opposite is also true. “If the officeholder loses or makes a major mistake, your career in politics could effectively be ended, too, or at least damaged,” says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
When it comes to the ongoing Menendez saga, staffers have likely been frantically sending out resumes and job applications. While understandable, Jarding points out that doing so may actually backfire in the end. “It would be stunning if any of them did so publicly,” he says, “for fear of looking disloyal, or worse — appearing to suggest they believe their boss is guilty.”