In the Washington Area, Former Campaign Volunteers and Staffers Decide to Run

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 25, 2009

A couple of weeks ago, Arlington County residents picked up their phones to hear a familiar drawl: "Hello," the recorded voice said. "This is Bill Clinton."

It wasn't the first time some bigwig had taped a campaign robo-call message. But this wasn't meant to endorse a presidential contender or even someone running for governor. It was on behalf of Adam Parkhomenko, 23, a former campaign aide for Hillary Rodham Clinton who is working on his college degree and running for Virginia state delegate.

He is hoping to parlay his national experience into his own electoral victory, and he is not alone. In the Washington area, at least a half-dozen former campaign volunteers and staff workers from last year's election have decided to run for office. They are taking inspiration from a historic presidential race and are eager to apply the big-league, high-tech tactics they used on the trail to contests that have traditionally been won at Rotary Club luncheons and civic association meetings.

Political observers say that the dramatic 2008 election might be having a ripple effect and that it could catapult an entire generation into public service.

"It may be that 20 years from now we look back and see that we have a class in the House of Delegates, the House of Representatives, the Senate who were energized by President Obama like we can now look back and say there were similar classes energized by John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan," said Quentin Kidd, a political science professor at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

The most prominent example of someone jumping from the background of a national campaign to the foreground of local politics is Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee chairman who is taking his first crack at running for office in this year's Virginia governor's race.

But there's also Mike Signer, 36, who was an adviser to former senator John Edwards and then Obama during the campaign and is aiming to become Virginia's next lieutenant governor. Mark Keam, 43, a former senior Democratic Hill staffer who was drafted by Obama's campaign to organize volunteers in Fairfax County, is running for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates. Republican Barbara Comstock, 49, who served as an adviser for the presidential bid of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, is also running for delegate from Fairfax.

Maryland's statewide races aren't until next year, but the names of two young former Clinton staffers have emerged as possible contenders for that state's legislature. Judd Legum, 30, a blogger-turned-opposition-researcher, has announced that he will run for the House of Delegates representing his native Annapolis area. And Rockville resident Sam Arora, 28, is considering a bid for the legislature.

It's perhaps no coincidence that so many of the hopefuls are former Clinton workers. Legions of Obama loyalists have been angling for administration jobs, while some Clinton staffers -- such as Legum -- spent the months after her primary defeat doing some soul-searching about their next step.

Legum founded the ThinkProgress blog at the Center for American Progress before joining Clinton's campaign. After Clinton lost the nomination, he said, he took a break from the hyperactive pace of Washington politics. But the wonk in him quickly took over, and he immersed himself in local issues. He started a Maryland politics blog, Legum's New Line, and announced his candidacy more than a year out.

The long hours and intense pressure of campaigning nationally "made me want to at least try another kind of politics," Legum said. "There is something valuable about being in the political process at this level. It's not sexy, but it's important. That's part of what persuaded me to get involved."

But going from K Street to State Circle is a challenging prospect. Being a Washington insider can be a liability, and although a bright young person with a talent for Twitter can be a valuable part of a national campaign, success at the local level often hinges on a person's deep contacts and years of community service.

For example, Keam has had to deflect attacks from opponents who have criticized his most recent job as a Washington lobbyist. And Parkhomenko's status as a novice -- combined with his youth and lack of college degree -- have made him a target as well.

"Adam's campaign shows what experience at a presidential level, and especially loyalty to the figures in a presidential campaign, can bring you," said Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington), who has endorsed Patrick Hope, one of Parkhomenko's opponents the five-way primary. "As exciting as it is to be involved in a presidential campaign, I don't think that substitutes for the kind of community involvement that traditionally has been a criterion for Arlington members of the General Assembly."

Parkhomenko has been trying to overcome that disadvantage by spending hours each day knocking on doors, but there have been some false starts. At first, he said, he went door-to-door tentatively and in a suit and tie. But several days and many blisters later, he traded them for a button-down shirt, khakis and sneakers. On a recent evening, he strolled the streets of Lyon Park like a pro, walking boldly up to front doors, chatting with voters about everything from same-sex marriage to the bike path in his neighborhood that used to be a creek.

His Boy Scout approach belies a well-funded, tech-savvy and aggressive campaign taken straight from the Clinton war room. A political wunderkind, Parkhomenko was picked up by Clinton's campaign fresh out of high school after he started a Web site aimed at persuading the former first lady to run for president. He is so close to the Clintons that Hillary calls him every year on his birthday. "She truly was like another mom to me," he said recently.

Now he has taken the step of renting a campaign office, which is unusual for a state delegate candidate. He has hired three full-time and three part-time staffers to manage his campaign, some of them former Clinton employees. He has even cross-referenced his high school yearbooks with voter registration records in hopes of identifying potential supporters who might not ordinarily come out to vote in a primary.

"I love this. It's pretty upsetting to think this is almost over," he said. "There will be no regrets either way."

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