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Interview with John Alex Golden

Posted By Alexandra Acker Lyons, Monday, November 16, 2009
Our latest interview in the Bubbles of Working in Politics series is with John Alex Golden.  When most people think about working for a legislator, they think of working on Capitol Hill.  Although there are lots of opportunities to get legislative experience in D.C., there are also tons of opportunities working for state legislators in state capitols around the country.  John Alex is Legislative Aide to Delegate David Englin of Virginia.  Read more about his experiences and check out the rest of our series.

1) Please give us a quick biography. Touch on how you got your first job in politics and why you decided to stick with politics as a profession.

I grew up around Washington, DC, so politics was fairly pervasive growing up. One of my earliest political memories was sitting with my Dad to watch CSPAN when I was 14, as the House voted on a part of the Telecommunications Act that he'd helped write. I got active in campaigns when I went to college when I joined the JMU College Democrats. We volunteered on a number of campaigns, including the local House of Delegates race in Harrisonburg. I did some internships when I was back in DC each summer, but got my first big break working for Congressman Jim Moran, first as an intern after graduation and then getting hired as his Staff Assistant.

I took a lot of time off to work on state and local campaigns around northern Virginia while working on the Hill, and really enjoyed being a part of both the legislative side and the campaign side of things. A few years ago, Delegate David Englin gave me the opportunity to do both working as his legislative aide and helping run his year-round grassroots campaign operation in Alexandria, and it's been a fantastic experience.

2) Did you begin your career thinking that the state legislature was where you wanted to end up?

Not at all. Growing up around DC, there was such a focus on the federal government (even in the local news) that it was easy to overlook anything at the state level, and when I started on the Hill, I assumed I would stick around there for a while. I'm really glad I ended up at the state-level, though. Working on the Hill was an incredible experience, but the state legislature has the ability to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the every day lives of the people who live here in Virginia. 

3) What do you like most and hate most about it?

I love the legislative session. In 45-60 days we have to get through 3,000 bills. The schedule creates an incredible bonding experience with other legislative aides (and legislators!), and it forces you to focus on what's going to have an immediate and positive impact on your constituents. I’d say the only thing I dislike right now is not being in the majority, but we’re going to keep working on that!

4) In general, do you recommend starting a successful legislative career on a political campaign or rather beginning a career at the legislature at the entry-level?

I think that’s going to depend a lot on personal preference, and either one can lead you to a very successful legislative career. That being said, working on a campaign is such a unique experience, and I think everyone should try it, even if it’s just on a volunteer basis while working another job. It’s some of the hardest work you’ll ever do, but the rewards are more than worth it.

5) Should one have a different approach to looking on the State Senate vs. the House of Delegates?  What are the major differences between the two bodies when it comes to working there?

Since it’s a smaller body that’s only up for re-election every four years, you have more time to develop relationships in the Senate. There’s not nearly as much turnover as you have in the House, so building up strong friends on an issue that you care about is much easier. The House is much more fluid; we’re entering the next legislative session with nineteen new legislators, nearly a fifth of our membership. If you’re coming to Richmond to advocate a bill next year, you’re looking at a large list of folks you’ve never talked to before, and you’re going to have to start from scratch on the House side.

6) Has there been a difference between how you expected the Legislature to be and how it is in reality?

It’s much more friendly than the blogs would have you believe. I think there’s an impression that members of the two parties can’t stand one another, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s an incredibly friendly atmosphere in Richmond. We disagree on a lot of issues, and we fight a lot, but at the end of the day, we’re all there to work for the people of Virginia. I don’t think a lot of us could get through the legislative session without that friendly atmosphere.

7) What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were first starting out in your career?

You have to make a clear separation between your work life and your personal life. Set aside time for yourself. So much of our daily work is done online, and it’s very easy to find yourself on the couch at 11:00 at night checking email when you’ve already been working all day. It feels productive, but it’s really just bringing you closer to burning out. I still violate this rule fairly regularly, but I’m getting better!

Also, for the nights you do have to work late, stock the house with something healthy. Just because Wendy’s is open until 3am doesn’t make it a good idea.

8) Do you have any parting thoughts that haven't been covered?

The work environment in the state legislature, when you’re not in session, is very different. We’re a citizen legislature, so all of the Delegates have day jobs that take up a lot of their time. Every office is going to be different, so if you’re considering working as a legislative aide, get to know your potential employer first. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, and it’s important to build a trusting relationship if you’re going to be an effective aide.

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