As administration changes, job seekers flock to Washington

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 27, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Tired of your same old job?

Frustrated fan of "The West Wing" and want to try your hand at the real thing?

Or maybe you've just cracked the Plum Book, a glittering bible of soon-to-be-vacated federal jobs, and saw an opening on the International Boundary and Water Commission for a tidy $158,000 a year and thought, "Hey, I can do that."

Step right up, would-be public servant. Welcome to the great capital job fair, where every four or eight years — whenever a new president is elected — parts of the federal bureaucracy turn over and jobs become as available as Cape Cod cottages in January.

Wall Street might be tanking and Detroit is on a bender. But Washington, notwithstanding a 7.4 percent unemployment rate, is experiencing flush times. The political side of the city is, anyway.

"It's the time when people are hunting, and there are tons of Democratic jobs and very little Republican jobs," said Danny Rotert, a spokesman for Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri.

From the White House and the rest of the executive branch, where all the top political appointees and their staffs will change hue from red to blue, to Capitol Hill, where Democrats have boosted their majorities, applications are pouring in.

Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, said it's gotten more than 200,000 resumes through its Web site, Change.gov.

Meanwhile, at least 19 new Democrats in the House will be looking for staff, as will at least seven in the Senate. It could even be more once several races in both chambers are settled.

"I'm quite certain resume piles are measured in feet, not inches," said Jackie Cottrell, chief of staff to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Business is booming in the nation's capital, but for Democrats only. Republicans need not apply. Call it the spoils of war.

"You don't come to work up here and not know that this is the reality of it," Cottrell said. "Elections are scheduled. You know when they're coming, the date certain by when there will be a change. You know what you get when you sign up for these jobs."

Besides being a Democrat, it also helps if job hunters worked for the Obama campaign. A lot of supporters, especially young people, were part of his grassroots network and many want to work for the man they helped put in the Oval Office.

"Judging by the incredible response we've had so far, it's clear that Americans are ready to help bring this change to Washington," Psaki said.

The Plum Book is a good guide to see what's out there and how much it pays. Take the confidential assistant to the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board: $81,000 to $105,000 a year. Or the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education in the Department of Education: $149,000 a year.

But all 8,000 or so jobs in the $38 paperback — online at http://www.gpoaccess.gov/plumbook/2008 — are either presidential appointments or otherwise require political connections.

In other words, if you're not wired in — a big donor, perhaps, or someone with highly placed friends — forget it.

"I've compared the Plum Book to one of the fancy Christmas catalogues, like Neiman Marcus," said Paul Light, an expert on government who teaches at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. "You look through and you say, 'Oh my God. That's wonderful. I'd love to have that under my Christmas tree.' It's a wish book."

Recently the politico.com Web site humorously advised job seekers to deliver to the personnel director of the Obama transition team a pizza from his favorite restaurant in Washington's Chinatown.

Light refined that advice, suggesting that the senders put their "resume on top of the pizza" and have it delivered by Tom Daschle.

"The way you get a job at this particular point is through your connection to strong Obama supporters," he said.

Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, is an Obama adviser and his choice to become secretary of health and human services.

Short of having him or some other heavyweight on their speed dials, a lot of hopefuls turn to their legislators for help.

"A steady stream of people are coming in," said Sean Kennedy, chief of staff to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. "Every member of Congress is getting requests from folks back home: 'I'd like to be a presidential appointee.'"

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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