Staff Week 2020: Profiles | Meet 6 Legislative Staffers

4/30/2020

Legislative Staff Week Profiles

During Legislative Staff Week, NCSL shines a light on staffers and all their important contributions to the legislature. In these profiles, six staffers tell us about life in the legislature, staying resilient during the coronavirus pandemic and what keeps them busy when they aren’t on the job.

VIRGINIA

Steve Pike

Chief of Police, Division of Capitol Police

What’s your role in the legislature?

The division is responsible for the public safety services to state agencies, state employees and elected officials. The men and women of the Division of Capitol Police represent a highly professional staff of police officers, support officers, communications professionals, administrative staff and K-9 that allows us to carry out our duties daily in a manner consistent with our core values of devotion, professionalism and character.

How have you stayed resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We’ve worked hard to divide duties and coordinate with each other while we split time between working remotely and being at Capitol Square. The staff is good at stepping up and taking leadership roles. Whether it’s preparing for large rallies at Capitol Square, working long hours at General Assembly sessions or facing a pandemic, the challenges seem to just keep on coming, one right after another.

Why did you choose to work at the legislature?

The opportunity to work for the Division of Capitol Police came open in 2010. I was interested in the history of the division, as well as working at the historic Capitol complex.

What do you find most rewarding about your job? 

I have the honor and privilege to meet hundreds of visitors each year at our Capitol.  I am fortunate to work in an environment filled with history that shaped not only the commonwealth but also this country. Also, I’m responsible with leading the nation’s oldest police force.

What has been your greatest challenge or frustration? 

I always tell my employees that challenges become opportunities for growth and development of leaders and leadership. Our greatest challenges will always be providing the best public safety services to the more than 100,000 visitors to the Capitol, while balancing the right to free speech and assembly for all citizens and visitors. 

What work are you proud of? 

The Division of Capitol Police in 2010 became one of less than 20% of Virginia law enforcement agencies to obtain state accreditation through the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission. The division was re-accredited in 2014 and again in 2018.

My staff tells me I’m a strong leader who insists on them being involved and responsible. That helps create a culture of strong teamwork in which the members of the staff not only look out for each other but take leadership roles when it comes to making sure our agency is viewed in the most professional light.

When you are not working, what might we find you doing?

I enjoy photography and visiting the spectacular national parks across the United States.

Any insights for your peers? Any shout-outs to colleagues or legislators you’ve worked with?

I have met many great professionals through serving with the Executive Committee of NCSL and as president of the National Legislative Services and Security Association. The NCSL staff has always been very helpful and serve as a tremendous resource for our legislatures across our nation.

Anything else you think your legislative staff peers might find interesting or want to know about you, your agency or your legislature? 

Even though our agency is more than 400 years old and we work at a campus where the architecture can be traced to the days of Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Capitol Square is far from a sleepy, historic outpost. Capitol Square is a diverse, modern, demanding community divided between the legislature and its community of support staff, the thousands of employees working at the seat of state government, and the many constituencies immediately around us in a crowded urban environment that includes such next-door neighbors as a large hospital with a Level I trauma center and a medical school, Richmond City Hall and countless apartments, restaurants, hotels and other businesses.

NEVADA

Megan Comlossy

Principal Policy Analyst, Research Divi­sion, Legislative Counsel Bureau

What’s your role in the legislature?

The Research Division’s mission is to provide high-quality public policy analysis, research and assistance to the Legislature—its members, committees and constituents. In this capacity, I assist legislators by researching issues of importance to them and their constituents, analyzing policy options and assisting with the development of legislation. In addition, I staff the Senate Health and Human Services Committee during the legislative session and the Legislative Committee on Health Care during the interim. This includes providing both substantive policy analysis and logistical support to the committees and working with the chair to identify key issues, develop and coordinate agendas, plan meetings and related events, and provide background information and policy options on key issues. I also prepare a variety of publications, from fact sheets and briefs to comprehensive studies and reports for legislators.

Why did you choose to work at the legislature?

I began my career in public policy in the Health Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, where I tracked state legislation, conducted policy research and analysis, responded to legislative requests for information, and wrote and presented on a wide range of health care issues. Through NCSL I had the opportunity to meet numerous legislators and legislative staffers from across the country. I was interested in being a bit closer to the policy-making processes, and when a legislative staffer from Nevada forwarded me a job opening in the state, I jumped at the opportunity—which also enabled me to move back to my childhood home of Lake Tahoe.

What do you find most enjoyable about your job?

I really enjoy research and helping legislators find policy options to address problems that affect real peoples’ lives—digging into a problem or an issue, researching possible solutions, analyzing how different policies might work in the state, and providing solid information on which legislators can make informed decisions.

In a time when information is more available than ever, I am excited to be in a position where I get to help policymakers filter facts from the noise and make educated decisions based on objective, accurate, nonpartisan information.

No two days are alike in this job, which is perfect for someone who loves learning!

What work are you proud of?

Some of the projects I’m most proud of are the more in-depth, comprehensive staff studies that I’ve had the opportunity to work on. These are generally longer term projects that require getting into the weeds of a specific issue, breaking it down into understandable pieces and providing policy options for legislators to consider. In addition to delving into an issue, they provide an opportunity to work as part of a team of legislative staff from various divisions—fiscal, legal, audit—to get to know and collaborate with people who I don’t interact with on a regular basis.

When you are not working, what might we find you doing?

Running, hiking or skiing in the mountains of Lake Tahoe, my home; going to the beach, playing outside or riding bikes with my almost 2-year-old son.

How are you staying resilient during the pandemic?

Adjusting to the new “normal” in a COVID-19 world has definitely been challenging. Working from home with two children under 2 makes for long, full—and fun—days. We’re still working on establishing new routines, boundaries and expectations. It is important to me to have separate “work time” and “family time,” so that I can focus all of my attention on my boys or work. My husband is an excellent partner and we’re taking work/parenting shifts during the workday. My office has been very understanding and flexible regarding schedules, and I find that keeping in regular and frequent communication with colleagues—through phone and video chats and instant messaging—helps reduce the feeling of isolation and maintain as much “business as usual” as possible. Getting outside also helps; fresh air and sunshine really provide some perspective. At the end of the day, I am grateful to have a job that I can do remotely, the opportunity to spend extra time with my children, and a regular paycheck. Not everyone is so lucky.

GEORGIA

Tara Boockholdt

Budget and Policy Analyst, House Budget and Research Office

What’s your role in the legislature?

I staff several committees and, as nonpartisan staff, answer questions from our representatives related to topics within those committees, such as Medicaid, public health, nursing homes and graduate medical education. 

Why did you choose to work at the legislature?

During high school, I developed a passion for the political process and knew I wanted to study political science. During my master’s program, I was hired by the Georgia Senate Budget and Evaluation Office and began to learn about and work with the state budget. Having now worked in both the House and Senate budget offices in Georgia, I have developed a strong understanding of the budget and think of it as a constantly evolving puzzle that I love trying to figure out.

What do you find most enjoyable about your job?

I love that almost every day of my job is different, and I’m constantly learning about new policies and topics. Whether it is a unique representative request or a new bill that has dropped, it is always a quick rush to learn as much as possible about an issue.

What has been your greatest challenge or frustration?

As much as I enjoy the political process, it can be frustrating to work hard on collecting research and developing recommendations for an issue that is then either dropped for political reasons or morphed into something different than envisioned. It is an assumed part of being nonpartisan staff, but it is still disappointing when it happens.

What work are you proud of?

A couple of years ago, Georgia discovered that it had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country. Through the health budget, the legislature has managed to greatly increase funding for maternal health initiatives in hospitals and communities. This work has also led to the current House Study Committee on Maternal Mortality, which is spending this off-session studying the issue and developing future recommendations for Georgia. I staff and provide the research for both the health budget and the study committee and am proud of what we have been able to do so far. 

When you are not working, what might we find you doing?

Outside of the office, you can usually find me hanging out at home or at a park with my family. Between my husband and I, our 2-year-old daughter, three dogs, and a second daughter on the way, it can sometimes get a little chaotic, but I love it.

How are you staying resilient during the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic started two weeks after I gave birth to my second daughter. Now with a newborn, a 2-year-old and a teleworking husband at home with me during maternity leave, our main goal each day is to keep structure in our day-to-day routine. We would not be surviving without our daily walks, evenings in the backyard and taking time to cook meals together. We’re trying to look on the bright side and appreciate the family time we’ve been given.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Emmanuel Brantley

Director of Communications, Council of the District of Columbia

What’s your role in the legislature?

My primary duties are to manage my councilmember’s social media platforms, foster healthy relations with the local press corps, maintain the official website and help to coordinate and execute related outreach activities. I also attend various hearings pertaining to the housing and judiciary committees to help keep my member briefed on pressing issues. There is a lot of great work to be done at the local level!

Why did you choose this work?

With so much attention given to our national and even state politics, it is easy to forget that some of the most important advocacy happens at the local level. It was important for me to understand and be able to speak to the impact that our local leaders have on us and to learn all that I can so that I can help to lay the foundation for sustainable change.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

Accompanying my boss to various radio stations, television networks or newspaper headquarters so that we can spread the word about the work we are doing to improve the lives of District residents, specifically in the areas of housing affordability and aging services. I love it when people call the office after an interview and ask how they can sign up for “that program” mentioned on the radio. Being surrounded by cool audio equipment, lights and cameras, and everything else that outfits a multimedia studio is also a plus.

What has been your greatest challenge or frustration?

Convincing individuals who are more partial to earned and traditional media that a strong digital footprint is important. Not only can social media and guest spots on podcasts be used to further disseminate your message, they engage new generations of constituents and future voters who may not receive information through any other source. Digital is no longer a privilege—it is a must that every entity should embrace.

What work are you proud of?

In an outreach capacity, I led our office to adopt a public middle school as part of the D.C. Public School’s Adopt-a-School Program. We are in the second year of this adoption and have exposed the students (through programming and field trips) to the inner workings of local and federal government, provided them with on-site recreational activities after school, and brought in a number of career professionals to inspire the students. We even helped to supply Thanksgiving baskets for families and are supporting the development of a resource fair for parents!

When you are not working, what might we find you doing?

Working on one of my many creative writing projects, studying an Adobe Creative Cloud program, or listening to new (or old) music. I also enjoy serving at my church and hanging with friends and may even try to sneak in a web search for cheap flights!

Any insights for your peers? Any shout-outs to colleagues or legislators you’ve worked with?

If I could offer any advice, it would be to always wear your smile. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing your passion reflected in a finished work product or even in the people you are serving.

Anything else you think your legislative staff peers might find interesting or want to know about you, your agency or your legislature?

I was a Spanish major in undergrad and love learning about all things related to Latin America and Spain. Playing soccer is not a strong suit of mine, though! Because the District of Columbia is not a state, our legislative body (the D.C. City Council) performs state, county and municipal functions on behalf of its residents and passes a budget spending plan of about $14 billion annually—public safety, education and housing are among the highest funded items.

OREGON

Alethia Miller

Legislative Analyst, Legislative Policy and Research Office

What’s your role in the legislature?

I staff legislative committees and provide nonpartisan objective research for legislators and their staff. My committee work includes developing the committee workplan with the chair, analyzing legislation assigned to the committee, submitting amendment requests, staffing and facilitating legislative work groups, coordinating committee meetings, and many other duties related to the legislative process.

How have you stayed resilient during the pandemic?

I’ve been working remotely (from home) for several weeks. I typically work remotely during the interim one day a week; however, the move to a full-time remote position has required a better at-home office set-up, that I recently finished putting together. Our leadership team has structured optional daily all-staff check-ins which I really appreciate on days when I only have two or three calls. The optional check-ins provide another opportunity to connect with my colleagues.

Why did you choose to work at the legislature?

I knew while working as a policy analyst and program manager for the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (state agency) that I wanted to work more directly with legislators. I also recognized how my experience operationalizing statewide programs from the ground up could be vital in the Capitol, because I have developed program guidelines around state laws. One of my goals was to learn all facets of policy development; the legislature offered the next step.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

The best part about this job is being able to work with any legislator, from any political party, and helping them get from Point-A to Point-B. The benefit to being nonpartisan is providing clear and comprehensive information for legislators. My role requires breaking down complex policy topics to make them easily understandable. This resource is one of the greatest values that our office provides.

What has been your greatest challenge or frustration?

The greatest challenge is clarifying the research question that has been asked. I find that having a conversation with a legislator, either by phone or in-person, will better position me to respond to their research request. The perception of my position is that the greatest challenge is remaining nonpartisan, but I have not had any issues with this. Data and information speak for itself.

What work are you proud of?

I am most proud of my ability to facilitate and coordinate legislative work groups. My role combines working with the legislators who convene the work group to articulate the policy objectives, while developing a clear workplan. As new information develops from each meeting, the plan and objective shift accordingly. My role also requires facilitating policy discussions among stakeholder groups and helping to articulate the required next steps. I have found the work groups produce legislation that satisfy the most legislators and stakeholders, because the meetings provide an opportunity to hear conversations that otherwise may not take place during a public meeting and allow a frank discussion of the nuts and bolts of policy topics. There may not always be agreement or consensus, but all the parties know why the legislation was developed in such a way.

When you are not working, what might we find you doing?

Since working in a legislative position, I’ve really enjoyed taking an annual weeklong vacation visiting a part of the globe I’ve never seen. Since the legislature requires such an intense time commitment during session, I look forward to exploring another part of the world—even if it is five or six months out.

Any insights for your peers? Any shout-outs to colleagues or legislators you’ve worked with?

I am most impressed by my colleagues with whom I have worked around the clock in service to the legislature, and in turn, the public. It has been a privilege providing this service to representatives and senators who continue to work on behalf of Oregonians. In addition, I have learned so much from every interaction.

Anything else you think your legislative staff peers might find interesting or want to know about you, your agency or your legislature?

The Legislative Policy and Research Office is actually a new legislative office that was developed in 2016 by Senate Bill 1569. The analysts who started under LPRO were hired in 2017, as I was. The staff from the former office which provided committee management for the Legislative Assembly also carried over into LPRO. The benefit to this is having a mixture of analysts with a wide range of experience and skills. LPRO provides a combination of centralized, professional and nonpartisan research, issue analysis, and committee management services for the Legislative Assembly.

IDAHO

Michelle O’Brien

Special Projects Coordinator, Legislative Services Office

What’s your role in the legislature?

I am responsible for the Capitol Tours Program, coordination of all facilities and security services, and oversight of the gift shop and information center staff and the dining room vendor.

How have you stayed resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Before the pandemic, LSO had its own quarterly newsletter. It was a traditional newsletter, made up of staff contributions that centered on travel, new births, retirements and professional recognitions awarded. Now that we’re all working from home, our newsletter is sent out weekly, folding in new topics like, favorite binge shows and suggested techniques for maintaining your sanity while working from home. I assist in developing ideas for the weekly topics and of course, submit my own stories.

To tackle the challenge of keeping our team of volunteer tour guides plugged in to each other and to the tours office, I implemented a weekly email string, where our volunteer tour guides share photos and stories that capture what living their life largely at home feels like.

Also, while working remotely, I maintain daily phone conversations with the Capitol building maintenance technicians, making it my top priority to engage with them, whether there are immediate issues or not.  It is imperative to me that these “boots on the ground” staff feel supported and appreciated during the crisis.

Why did you choose to work at the legislature?

I have always been fascinated by how government functions. Looking back, I think that growing up near the birthplace of Harry Truman and visiting his home as a young child made a huge impression on me. Though I began college as a psychology major, it was my political science elective classes that sparked my interest in the policy-making process. As a result, I started to picture myself playing a role supporting my state government. Each day when I left school, I could see our Capitol building just down the boulevard and I knew that I wanted to work there one day.

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

It is very rewarding to hear a constituent thank-you, whether it is for helping them find information or for steering them through the legislative maze.  I really enjoy watching children tour the building for the first time and see how their eyes light up when they first enter the building. And one of my favorite recent memories is hearing an older person exclaim with delight when they realized how easy it was for them to access their legislators and to attend committee meetings. Promoting civic engagement and creating projects that heighten a constituent’s access and understanding of the process is definitely one of the most rewarding aspects of my job.

What has been your greatest challenge or frustration?

The greatest challenge I’ve faced is balancing my regular duties with the development of new constituent services projects. For example, our Remote Testimony Pilot Project requires me to create new collaborative relationships with many project-participating agencies. These relationships are vital to the success of the projects but are quite time intensive to create and maintain.

The challenge inherent in sustaining a relationship of trust with the legislators, fellow staff and agency associates alike is that I am often called upon to serve as an unofficial help desk of sorts. Whether it’s “Ask Michelle, she’ll know the answer” or “Call Michelle, she’ll figure it out,” I can quickly have my daily to-do list upended. Balancing this unofficial job with my regular responsibilities requires a high level of flexibility.

What work are you proud of?

The Idaho Capitol building is a 100% open public venue. The security challenges this presents can be daunting. I am proud to have been the spearhead for change in how security at the Capitol is handled.    My efforts began by collaborating with each entity housed in the Capitol, with our Capitol Mall Security team, and with our partners in the Idaho State Police. 

I’m also proud to have worked with Senator Brent Hill, Senate pro tempore, in an effort to display reproductions of the original Idaho Capitol building blueprints (circa 1905) in the Senate Chairman’s suites. Providing legislators and Capitol visitors alike with the opportunity to view these architectural treasures from the past was both an exciting and fulfilling experience for me.

When you are not working, what might we find you doing?

When not working you will most likely find me spending time with my family and our many pets, or you might find me reading a good book.

Any insights for your peers? Any shout-outs to colleagues or legislators you’ve worked with?

Anyone who works for and with state legislatures knows that we are only as great as the teams we have supporting us. I can’t say enough good things about our LSO staff and the true team mentality we all possess. I would also encourage everyone to find their appropriate staff section in NCSL. I would be lost without the support and advice from my colleagues in the NLSSA (National Legislative Services and Security Association). Networking with other legislative staff from around the country for trainings, support and collaboration has been a key aspect for my professional growth.

Anything else you think your legislative staff peers might find interesting or want to know about you, your agency or your legislature?

While the Idaho Legislative Services Office supports 105 legislators, we are also one of the smaller LSOs at only 63 permanent full-time staff at this time. During the legislative session, LSO Research and Budget and Policy Analysis staff assist in drafting an average of 800 pieces of legislation, which ultimately lead to the enactment of an average of 350 bills per session. Additionally, the audit division staff audits 30 to 40 state agencies each year. And, finally, our IT division staff provides year-round support for the legislature, House and Senate support staff and all LSO divisions.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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