From legislative aide to legislator
Assistant's job offers springboard to elected office but with hurdle
After years spent working behind the scenes in Annapolis, more former legislative aides these days are seeking to join their one-time bosses in the General Assembly.
However, their political aspirations can create friction within the State House, as was seen in February when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach recommended a Republican aide be fired because she intended to run for state office.
In fact, under personnel guidelines, legislative aides are not allowed to keep their jobs once they file to run for the General Assembly.
Despite the restriction that some find stifling, several former legislative aides are on the ballot this year. If elected, they will join a host of legislators with aide experience, such as Del. Christopher B. Shank, the House Minority Whip.
Former aides say their jobs served as a crash course in district issues and constituent concerns that better educated them on assuming office.
"I felt very well prepared," said Shank (R-Dist. 2B) of Hagerstown, who was the legislative assistant to the Washington County delegation from 1995 to 1998. "I was the one working on the legislative package for the delegation." Shank is now a candidate for Senate in District 2.
The job also teaches aides how to get things done in Annapolis, according to Kelly Schulz, a New Market resident running for delegate in District 4A.
"Once you go to Annapolis, it takes a team from the very start to the end of legislation to get it to be successful," said Schulz, a Republican and former aide to the House Republican Caucus.
The issue of aides seeking election has been contentious for sitting legislators, who often are wary of their staff members taking on campaigns.
Kathy Szeliga, a Republican candidate for delegate in District 7 whose own campaign stirred controversy during the most recent legislative session, says the guideline that says legislative aides must relinquish their jobs if they pursue a General Assembly seat should be reviewed.
In February, Miller wrote a letter to Szeliga's former boss, state Sen. Andrew P. Harris, saying that Szeliga, Harris' chief of staff at the time, should be fired because she intended to seek state office.
Harris disagreed, and Szeliga, who worked as Harris' aide for six years, was able to keep her job until she filed for election in July.
Szeliga and others say they are unsure why the personnel guideline is in place. Legislative aides who file to run for local offices are allowed to keep their jobs.
"Someone felt threatened of their staff," Szeliga said of the reason for the legislative policy. "It's frankly ridiculous. If I was running for county council, I wouldn't have to quit my job."
Schulz says a legislative aide should be allowed to keep his or her job even while running for state office, as long as it is OK with his or her boss. Schulz resigned from her most recent role as vice chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party before filing for election, she said.
Mary Jane Coolen, a former legislative aide for Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Dist. 47) of Cheverly, also left her job to run for Ivey's seat, but withdrew from the race in June soon after Ivey filed.
Whether or not the policy is changed, legislative aides likely will continue to run, according to aides-turned-lawmakers who say elected office is a natural transition.
"I'm telling you there is something to be said for having experience," Schulz said. "I know who the people are I can go to for support on certain items. There's a good deal of knowledge you have to have walking in the door in order to make your first year somewhat successful."
Szeliga said her experience as a small business owner for 25 years will prepare her to make decisions in the General Assembly.
"What the legislative aide job has done is given me full information about what the job entails," she said.
Some state legislators have gotten their start as aides on Capitol Hill. Del. Guy Guzzone (D-Dist. 13) of Columbia was the legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson of Florida from 1988 to 1991 before he was hired as assistant to Howard County Councilman Shane E. Pendergrass in 1991. He served in that role through 1995.
A number of legislative aides also have sought local offices.
In Montgomery County, County Council Vice President Valerie Ervin (D-Dist. 5) of Silver Spring got her start as a legislative aide to fellow Councilman George L. Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park. She was elected to her first term four years ago.
This year, Vicki Almond, a former aide to Sen. Robert A. Zirkin (D-Dist. 11), is running for a seat on the Baltimore County Council in District 2.
Almond, a longtime volunteer on Zirkin's campaigns, was the senator's aide from 2006 to 2009, and called it her dream job, because she was able to work directly with district residents.
Winning election to a district council seat would allow her to continue that role, she said.
"You're closer to the constituents because you're at a local level," Almond said.