We continue our interview series exploring the various career paths of working in politics. Check out our recent article, "The Bubbles of Working in Politics" for an overview and to check out other interviews.
Today, we interview Matt Thornton, Communications Director for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). Like many, Matt started in politics working on campaigns and has been working on the hill for two years.
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 don’t remember the exact moment that I decided I wanted to be involved in politics, but it was at some point in high school. I grew up in Kansas where I became progressively aware of the fact that I was a Democrat – not an easy position to take in Kansas in those days. It was an easy decision to study political science and history in college and government administration in grad school.
After finishing my education, I hit the campaign trail, getting my start as an operations guy for Allyson Schwartz for Congress (PA-13) in ’04. I then went on to head up the online communications for Jim Davis for Governor (FL) in ’06.
From there, I started on Capitol Hill as the Press Secretary then Communications Director for Congressman Zack Space (OH-18) then to my current position as Communications Director for Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI).
2) Did you begin your career thinking the federal legislature was where you wanted to end up?
I began with an eye toward national politics. I always expected that I would end up in Washington at some point. Early on, I expected that working in Congress would be an exciting experience, but I had no idea just how thrilling it would be. After two and a half years on Capitol Hill, I still get chills walking into the Capitol Building.
3) What do you like most and hate most about it?
What’s not to like? I get the opportunity to be in the middle of the great debates of our time. History is made every day around here, and in a very small way, I play a part in that.
I wouldn’t say that I particularly hate anything about the job. I suppose I could point to the high stress levels on the Hill, but, to be quite honest, I think that is part of what makes this place so exciting.
4) In general, do you recommend starting a successful Hill career on a political campaign or rather beginning a career on the Hill at the entry-level?
I always encourage people just starting out in this business to take an honest assessment of what they really want to do in their careers. If the end goal is definitely working on the Hill, then that is where they should focus their attention. There are a number of people who start out in the campaign world expecting to transition to the Hill only to find out that there are actually very few campaign jobs that have equivalents on the Hill (communications being one of them). People make the jump, but it is tough.
5) Should one have a different approach to looking on the Senate vs. the House? What are the major differences between the two bodies when it comes to working there?
In transitioning to the Senate, the main difference that struck me was the pace is a lot different over here than on the House side. Representatives are frequently competing with each other for coverage and attention, and the nature of the body is much faster. Senators do not have to deal with that quite as much, so it is much less rough-and-tumble.
6) Has there been a difference between how you expected the Hill to be and how it is in reality?
Growing up, I always had the impression that Congress was an abstract place full of smart, faceless people that you read about in books. It was impersonal, remote, and austere. The thing that struck me was just how diverse and interesting the staffers are.
7) What is the one thing you know now that you wish you had known when you were first starting out in your career?
This is not an easy business. You really need to make sure this is what you want to do before throwing caution to the wind and jumping in.
8) Do you have any parting thoughts that haven’t been covered?
Network. There is nothing more valuable in this town than the personal connections you make with people. If you have a job in mind, call a few people who have similar jobs, ask them to give you an informational interview, and get their ideas on how to get the position.