“Are you the Tom Manatos?” It’s a question he gets often. He’s famous, among a select few.
This time, it was 2009 at the Kenwood Animal Hospital in Bethesda. Manatos was there to pick up his mother’s beagle, Champ, who was being released after staying overnight to have a cyst removed. When Manatos handed the receptionist his credit card, the young woman behind the desk gasped.
“You’re the one with the list!” she said. In a city with employment upheaval on a biennial basis, Tom’s the guy who knows where the jobs are. What began as a classified e-mail to a couple hundred people looking for jobs in politics has ballooned into a Web site, Tom Manatos Jobs (www.tommanatosjobs.com), with a 20,000-person mailing list. He’s D.C.’s Craig, and his Christmas comes in November.
But back to the animal hospital . . .
The woman, Valeria Carranza, was a White House intern at the time, working in Bethesda to pay the bills. She had been looking for a job on Capitol Hill, to no avail. Manatos said he would put in a good word with a congressman’s office, and a few weeks later she was on the Hill, working for Rep. Mark Schauer, a freshman Democrat from Michigan. In less than two years, Schauer would lose his reelection bid, and Carranza would again be out of a job.
So it goes in Washington, a city with predictable unpredictability. With the midterm elections, hundreds of Capitol Hill staffers — mostly Democrats — found out that their jobs would no longer be available come January.
About 70 members of Congress who were here last term will not be returning, because they either were voted out or decided it wasn’t worth running again (or, in a couple of cases, because they died). Staffers know that this comes with the territory: They work for the people who work for the people, and the people have spoken. But that doesn’t make the interregnum any less chaotic.
“I remember driving back from Michigan feeling completely defeated,” Carranza said about her boss’s loss in 2010. “I took it personally. And the same day we got back, staffers were already coming in to check out our office to move in. We needed to start packing, we were out of our jobs, and we were out of the majority. It was like salt in the wound.”
John Davis, Rep. Bruce Braley’s chief of staff, can attest to this. His boss, a Democrat, lost his race to be the next senator from Iowa earlier this month. Davis has a tradition of heading to Key West after an election. For the past few election cycles it’s been celebratory, but this time it was an escape. Last week he returned to the “odd process of shutting down the office” and the task of helping his staff find gainful employment.
“For a lot of folks, it can be a discouraging and scary time,” he said, noting that a lot of his energy now will be devoted to using connections to help out his team. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to find a new job. Even after 2008, a lot of the Obama campaign staffers had a tough time finding a job after the election.”
Presidential years make midterms — even the wave elections — look like small beer. Brian McCormack, a former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, acted as an informal recruiter for his own staffers during the period before Barack Obama was inaugurated. There were thousands of people on the hunt for jobs.
“A presidential year is the perfect storm of losing jobs on the Hill, the campaign and a few thousand people in the administration,” McCormack said. “And being a Bush alumnus didn’t make you the most popular person in town.”
But one staffer’s garbage week is another man’s golden opportunity.
“My public service bug gets filled by this. I love it,” Manatos said about helping guide people through the churn. Already, he says, he has talked with more than 20 people about finding new jobs. “I love the networking, the chess pieces moving. A lot of it is lobbying for jobs, and I love lobbying, I love it.”
A young-looking 35, with trusting gray eyes and a constant smile, Manatos somehow doesn’t sound repugnant when delivering this ode to lobbying. Having spent so much time thinking about getting people jobs, he chats like he’s role-playing for a “how to interview” video. He sits upright, makes direct eye contact and can land a safe joke. (“It took me four months to find my last job,” he said. “You know how many people told me that they knew a list I should check out?”)
Maintaining the Web site isn’t Manatos’s day job; it’s what he does for fun (and by his calculation, a very small profit). He’s director of government affairs for the Internet Association, lobbying Congress on such issues as patent reform. (Recently, he was at a senator’s office, and the chief counsel thanked Manatos for helping him find a job.)
Manatos started e-mailing about jobs while he was working for Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2002. After Obama won the presidency in 2008, his mailing list skyrocketed from about 4,000 people to 14,000. Once just a list of Democratic opportunities, it expanded to be bipartisan after Manatos married a Republican in 2006. Which is fortunate this year.
“Recently most of the listings have been for Republican jobs,” he said.
And Manatos isn’t the only one having a good time. Karen Mills is a headhunter who just moved her business from San Francisco to the District. Her Washington office opened in July, and she knew back then not to make any plans for the end of the year.
“I’m definitely hoping that this creates a good opportunity for us to get to know people we wouldn’t get to work with otherwise,” she said. “Anytime there are opportunities available to us, we’re going to be excited by them.”
Mills said Washington offers a kind of gold rush that is harder to come by in California. She said about 75 percent of her workload in the past couple of weeks has involved people coming from Capitol Hill. The closest equivalent might be when companies merge or are acquired.
“There’s a buzz that can happen in the Bay Area that way, but it’s not predictable,” she said. “You can’t clear your schedule and be ready for it the same way.”
It’s probably not much consolation for the job seekers that the Manatoses and Millses of the world are excited about the employment tumult. And there’s not much of a silver lining in the form of higher-paying jobs in the private sector to fall back on. That rarely seems to be a first choice.
“Over my decade as staff director, the majority of people I worked with either wanted to stay on the Hill or work for the administration,” said Russ Sullivan, who used to work for Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee as staff director. “But I suspect that’s a Democratic view of the world.”
Sullivan’s suspicions don’t hold up — turns out most everyone would like to stay if they can. According to Lee Drutman of the New America Foundation, there’s no real evidence that shows a difference between Democratic and Republican revolving doors.
“I think if you go to work on the Hill, it’s because you want to work in government in the first place,” Drutman said.
This can mean a run on the few jobs that remain on the Hill.
“It was awkward, all of us competing for the same jobs,” Carranza remembered. “We were all in mourning, but at the same time we had to put on our suits and interview and get our lives in order.”
Carranza managed to get another offer, a spot working for Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.). But before she could accept the job, her fiancee had one rule.
“She made me check to see what [Sanchez] had won her last election by,” Carranza said. If Sanchez won less than 60 percent of the vote, Carranza wouldn’t be allowed to take the job. “We have a wedding to plan,” she said.
Turns out she had won 68 percent of the vote. On the Hill, that’s as close as it gets to job security.