For chiefs of staff, job No. 1 is keeping their bosses plugged in and perpetually prepared.
By Natalie O'Donnell Wood
What do a fishing boat captain, a former FBI agent, an aspiring doula and a capitol restoration buff have in common? In this case, they all have eyes in the back of their heads, keen communication skills and an uncanny way of knowing just what to say to the press. These four—Jesse Ancira from Texas, Alaska’s Tom Wright, Vermont’s Leah Marvin-Riley and Tim Mapes from Illinois—belong to an elite group of legislative employees. They are the chiefs of staff to presiding officers.
A chief’s job is multifaceted. Chiefs gather intelligence on issues and strategize responses. They act as sounding boards for legislators and convey their boss’s positions on everything from bills to chairmanships. They speak to the press. They create talking points. They listen and respond to constituents. They work with lobbyists. They track legislation. They deal with personnel problems, manage staff and sometimes offer advice on behavior. They may structure the day-to-day agenda during session or work on capitol projects.
But most important, they make sure there are no surprises.
All chiefs must excel at dealing with people, solving problems and navigating the legislative process for getting things done. To accomplish that, they have to know how to communicate effectively.
What Does a Chief Do?
“I was hired to be the eyes and ears of the speaker,” says Leah Marvin-Riley, chief of staff to Vermont Speaker Shap Smith (D). “I have a lot of conversations with people who need to be heard. I do a lot of listening. But my big responsibility is to determine what the speaker needs to be aware of.”
“There are different fires every day,” says Jesse Ancira, chief of staff for Texas Speaker of the House Joe Strauss (R). “But the common denominator is watching your boss’s back, being his eyes and ears, and assessing what the mood is, what the temperament is.”
They listen, they watch and they speak. Tom Wright, Alaska’s chief of staff to Speaker Mike Chenault (R) and NCSL’s current staff chair, says his main role, especially in meetings with legislators and staff is “to communicate, to get across what we want done, what we see happening, what the timeline looks like, especially at the end of session.”
There’s also the occasional dispute to deal with. That’s when chiefs’ problem-solving skills come in handy. Tim Mapes, chief of staff for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D), agrees that clear, frequent communication is essential to the job. “I regulate disputes occasionally—most often because members believe something they’ve heard, often a conversation out of context,” he says. “If you take the time to sit down and have a conversation, most of the time they will leave with a better understanding of the issue, of where the caucus is, and of the speaker’s position. It just needs a good, thorough discussion.”
People Person, Process Lover
None of the skills mentioned above will be effective if the chief can’t work well with people. “Never forget that this is all about people and relationships,” says Ancira.
A chief of staff relies on his or her people skills to diffuse conflict, deal with difficult egos, manage different personalities or build trust among the various legislative players. Chiefs of staff are often the point of contact for legislators from both parties, other legislative staff, lobbyists, the governor, the governor’s staff, other statewide elected officials, U.S. representatives and senators, the press and constituents.
The list can appear endless—just like the wait is to get in Tom Wright’s door. “I usually have three or four people lined up outside my office at all times during session,” he says. “I love working with all the different personalities.”
And finally, chiefs need to know the legislative process—inside and out. In Illinois, Mapes is also the chief clerk of the House, for which his chief of staff experience prepared him well. As chief, Mapes juggled “committee schedules around and worked with members to answer their questions about bills and amendments,” he says. “When I started, members had to track down that information for themselves. ... But today, our members have become accustomed to having that dialogue with staff.”
With so much access to the inner workings of the legislature—the good, but also the bad and the ugly—how do chiefs of staff not become cynical? An in-depth knowledge of the process helps.
“Coming into this job right out of school has been interesting,” says Marvin-Riley. “You spend all those years learning all the positive things about government, but from a distance. Now that I’m here, even though there are inefficiencies, the fact that legislation is passed at all is amazing and encouraging.”
“I can see the substance through the sound bites,” says Ancira. “That helps me keep a perspective on what’s important and how to solve the problems of the day.”
Wright’s love and respect for the legislative institution are evident when he talks about his work. “I wish I could convey that feeling to everyone. … It makes the process smoother if they have an innate respect for the institution. Most have it. But some don’t until they have the chance to work in it,” he says.
These four staffers most definitely have it. Their favorite aspects of their jobs all revolve around the legislative process, from integrating technology to streamline the work, to playing the “chess game” of session with all the strategy that entails.
Still, a Few Thorns
Frustrations on the job often are caused by too much to do in too little time, resulting in legislation that fails, members who are unhappy, and chiefs who don’t have time to study issues in-depth. Solutions to the lack-of-time conundrum baffle most of us, but these chiefs could easily agree on what NOT to do: Get into the habit of sleeping at the capitol.
The bustle of the job has at least one silver lining, according to Ancira. Although it can be challenging to deal with all the forces out of control on any given day, it makes time fly. “It seems as if there is never a dull moment—and when there is, it doesn’t last long,” he says.
A great chief respects the boss and receives the same back. Chiefs speak of the importance of having frequent meetings with their leaders, of being entrusted to perform important functions for them, and of developing relationships with leaders that grow deeper over time. This holds true for both the long- and the short-hauls.
Mapes, who has served as chief since 1992 to the longest-serving speaker currently holding office, says of himself and Speaker Madigan, “we have developed a pretty good working relationship … but it takes a long time to fine-tune it.”
In Alaska, “we meet just about constantly,” says Wright. “We discuss things on an every hour basis if he’s not on the floor.” And what if the speaker needs to be reached on the floor? “We have a ‘Bat Phone’,” says Wright, laughing.
It didn’t take Marvin-Riley, who has been chief for just a year, long to figure out that “so much of this job depends upon how the speaker and I get along and how well we communicate so I know how to respond to what he needs.”
Building up that respect, according to these chiefs, involves developing the kind of relationship where honesty and immediate communication are the order of the day. Ancira’s puts it simply. “I have to be direct, state the facts, let him know what happened, tell him why, and be straight about what’s next.”
When that happens, there are few surprises.
Wright has served as chief of staff for three speakers, starting 1998. Currently, he is the NCSL staff chair, but he will hand that baton over to Peggy Piety, legislative staff attorney in Indiana, during this the Legislative Summit in Minneapolis.
Have you ever considered running for office? I ran once, and now I’m glad I didn’t win. I haven’t always felt that way, though. I went back to my job at the legislature after losing the primary. It was humbling. But life goes on.
How do you protect against burnout? Outside the legislature, in social settings, I sometimes shut down all political talk. If they have to talk politics, I tell them to ‘come visit me in the office.’ I think that’s protected me. Or, you can find me fishing. I commercial salmon fish in Cook Inlet. When I’m fishing, my cell phone may be on, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to answer it. People mostly respect that.
What would you being doing if you weren’t chief of staff? I’ve considered teaching political science—on a reality basis. I’ve looked into lobbying. It’d be difficult for me because I would have a hard time not lending advice. I love the process. But fishing is my first choice … it’s just hard to live off that income year-round.”
Marvin-Riley began as an intern in the speaker’s office in 2012. She was hired as chief of staff right after graduating from the University of Vermont in 2013.
What’s it like being the only full-time staffer for all House members? I don’t just work for my boss—any legislator can come to me with a question or problem and I’ll try to solve it. I do everything from pick up pizzas to help craft the policy agenda. I try to use interns to track bills and do scheduling. I use our chairs and members for committee proceedings. Lobbyists are really helpful. But it would be nice to have the capacity to have more informed conversations.
Have you ever considered running for office? I’ve thought about running. But I wanted to learn more about the process first. Now, after working for the Legislature, I realize I don’t want to run. I like what I can be involved in as a staffer.
How do you prevent burnout? Enjoying my job is a huge help in warding against burnout. We all reach a point in the middle of the session where we think we’re crazy for wanting to be there. But most of the time it’s like you’re part of a huge family. You feel good about being able to make a difference in the lives of Vermonters. I feel very lucky to be able to interact with so many interesting people on a day-to-day basis.
Mapes started with the Illinois General Assembly in 1977, became chief of staff in the speaker’s office in 1992 then chief clerk of the Illinois House of Representatives in 2011. He’s also served as executive director of the Democratic Party of Illinois since 1998. His interest in state capitol restoration projects fills his free time.
How do you explain what you do to people you meet? I explain that I work for the House and I work with members. As I get into describing that, people start to glaze over and don’t pay much attention. But if they have a bill they are interested in and we start talking about how you get it moving, then they develop an interest.
Have you ever considered running for office? (Laughs) No. A lot of people have that interest when young, but as soon as you realize you’re into policy, running seems difficult. There are a lot more challenges to running a campaign then there used to be.
What would you be doing if you didn’t do this? Most of my directors have left for the third house, to be lobbyists, but that has never been on my list. I have a good relationship with the speaker, and I’ve chosen to stay on this path. Washington, D.C., would have been a fun place to start my career—you learn a whole different skill set. But I’m too old to start there. You need lots of energy.
Ancira has served in all three branches of government: the Office of the Texas Auditor, Office of State Comptroller, Commission on Judicial Conduct, Texas Senate and House, and the speaker’s office since 2009. He’s also mayor of Taylor, Texas, and a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He became chief of staff in 2012.
How do you explain to your kids what you do for a living? My kids are fascinated by the work that goes on in the capitol. They take an interest in some of the players, the leadership, and they are intrigued that their dad is working in and around the speaker, the lieutenant governor and the governor. But at the end of the day, they really just care about school and that I’m their dad.
What’s it like toward the end of session? My days start at 7 or 7:30 a.m. For a few weeks, I operate on two to three hours of sleep—if I’m lucky. Some days I get only an hour of sleep, or I go home just to shower and shave and come back. It’s not unusual to work 20-hour days when the clock is ticking, when there are deadlines for bills to pass or fail. At the end of every legislative day, I meet, along with our policy director, with the speaker to rehash the day, the week, and to look ahead. It doesn’t matter if it’s 12, 1 or 2 a.m.; we have to be ready for the next move.
What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this? I’d probably be a criminal profiler. I have an interest in that, I enjoy reading those books and the movies intrigue me. I’m an amateur in trying to read people. I enjoy that.
Do You Have What It Takes?
How do you prepare for the job? The ability to manage your time well, communicate clearly, multitask and prioritize, along with being flexible, trustworthy and honest, will serve a chief of staff well. Learning the how things get done in the legislature is important, “but never forget this is all about people and relationships,” says Ancira.
Is it crucial to have a political science background? It can help, but gaining experience is better. “Quite frankly, you need to throw the book away,” says Wright. “There are some skills you can learn in school, but others you just have to learn on the fly,” says Mapes.
Where can you gain experience? From the most unlikely sources. Marvin-Riley is learning how to project calm and patience by studying to be a doula, a childbirth partner. Ancira, a former FBI agent, credits his Quantico training with teaching him how to plan, strategize and remain focused. It has also helped with diffusing tension—but those days are waning. “We had a near fist fight in one of the committee rooms once when two people got into a shouting match,” he recalls. “As they moved closer to each other, my first thought was to jump over the table and get between them. But then I realized that was back in the day. To help, I was going to have to run around the table.”
Is the campaign trail a good place to learn? Mapes, who has extensive campaign experience, enjoys the balance between the legislative and political worlds it provides. Staff benefit from having that particular type of exposure to the members. “You get to know their character. And it also helps you learn what their districts are like,” he says. Working a campaign allows legislators to get to know staff as well.
But the best experience, Wright says is still “within the legislature when session gets going.” Ancira agrees. Campaign experience does not necessarily translate into solid legislative staffing skills. “The first thing we tell newly elected lawmakers is that they have to separate the politics from the policy. You’re now here to look at what’s best for Texas and for your district.” The same is true for staff.
A Group for Leadership Staff
NCSL’s Leadership Staff Section, founded in 1975, is the professional organization for legislative staff like these four chiefs of staff who work for leaders. The group connects staff from all over the country through its seminars and trainings, communications and discussion groups to share experiences, learn from each other, and increase their effectiveness. It also provides a unique way for these incredibly hard-working staff to be recognized for their outstanding achievements.
“Each state is unique in personality and style. Each accomplishes the same goals but differs in getting there,” says Tom Wright, Alaska’s chief of staff and NCSL’s current staff chair. “I wish I’d had this kind of opportunity to get to know my peers in other states earlier in my career. Sharing our knowledge and being able to walk in each other’s shoes is a huge advantage.”
The group will hold its 39th professional development seminar Sept. 14 – 17 in New Orleans, La.
Natalie O’Donnell Wood serves as liaison to the Leadership Staff Section and tracks legislative staffing, ethics and lobbying issues for NCSL.