Eight years out of college, Gregory Jackson Jr. had ascended swiftly in the world of Washington politics — to swing-state director for President Obama in 2012, then to national field director for electing House Democrats.
But Jackson, 29, recently found himself seated across from Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser weighing a career move that would take him in the opposite direction of most aspiring D.C. politicos: to a job with city government.
Bowser’s offer was gritty and far from the glamour of national politics: director of community relations. The unofficial job description? Fielding a ceaseless stream of complaints about potholes, trash and broken traffic lights.
“I jumped on it,” Jackson said.
He wasn’t alone. Since January, a wave of federal bureaucrats and national political staffers has washed down Pennsylvania Avenue to the D.C. government’s headquarters. Among the pilgrims: Obama’s top expert on homelessness among veterans, a chief bureaucrat in the General Services Administration, a former assistant chief of the Small Business Administration, the executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus and the spokesman and two former staffers for the Democratic National Committee.
The members of this class share a feeling of discontent over the partisan brinkmanship and policy paralysis that have come to define Washington. But some are also quick to point out another motivation: improving a city they now view as their home town.
Bowser’s young administration — which largely took shape last week, when a slew of confirmations sailed through the D.C. Council — has become an emblem of a capital city in the midst of dramatic change. Just as growing numbers of Washingtonians see the city as their home — not just a career way station — so, too, has the city government become a destination of its own.
Bowser (D) said she went into many interviews ready with a pitch but often didn’t have to make too hard of a sell. For one federal applicant, the mayor said, she just listed everything else on her day’s agenda, including a new soccer stadium.
“You can only see the benefits of those efforts in such a short time at the local level,” Bowser said.
Laura Green Zeilinger, Bowser’s new point person on the District’s homeless crisis, may best embody the optimism that has driven some professionals from national posts to the John A. Wilson Building.
For most of the 20 years since Zeilinger arrived in D.C., the triathlete and former college rower was focused on the kind of global problems that draw so many to Washington. Living in a cramped apartment on Capitol Hill, Zeilinger spent the late 1990s working on reforming the pension system in Kazakhstan.
She has served in city government before, working her way through law school at American University. By Obama’s second term, she was climbing the ranks at the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Last year, she was tapped to lead the council and the final leg of Obama’s five-year sprint to end chronic homelessness for some 58,000 veterans nationwide.
One day in December, Zeilinger sat in her office planning a briefing for 19 Cabinet secretaries and reviewing an announcement that New Orleans would become the first U.S. city to meet its benchmark. Then she got a call from Bowser.
Zeilinger said she struggled with the decision to leave a job unfinished. But she felt a special obligation and opportunity to tackle a problem in her own back yard.
“This is the work that I am most passionate about, and this has become my home,” said the Cleveland native, who lives with her husband and children in Tenleytown. “I’m raising a teenager, and I have a 10-year-old. I care deeply about this community and a chance to make a difference.”
She also viewed Bowser an attractive boss.
“People in this town are inspired by strong leadership, especially strong political leadership, which gives people the opportunity to feel like their work matters and they can make change,” Zeilinger said. “I think that we’ve got that in this mayor.”
Two blocks from the White House, Kevin Donahue was working at the glacial pace of progress in a massive federal bureaucracy when a call came in on his cellphone from a number he did not recognize. On the other end of the line was Bowser.
“I immediately said: ‘Yes. When can I come in and interview?’ ” said Donahue, who was still smarting from the powerlessness and paralysis he felt sitting in his Northeast home for days during the last federal government shutdown.
Donahue also felt increasingly distant from actual results. As head of the Performance Improvement Council at the General Services Administration, Donahue was responsible for getting 24 of the largest federal agencies to coordinate and implement “new cross-agency priority goals.”
“It was a wonderful job,” Donahue said. “But I learned there’s a reason why the federal government appears to move slowly. And that is because if you move too quickly when you have a 200,000-person organization, what you are trying to do is probably going to be incoherent to the rest of the organization and you are probably going to fail.”
On an emotional level, the slow progress was deeply frustrating — especially when “you may have the answer,” he said. “How hard is it to get people to start acting consistent with what the answer is?”
Donahue is now Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, and his focus is to find better ways for the fire department to respond to life-and-death calls, and for the city to use all of its resources to reduce homicides.
“You can see a problem in the morning, try to find an answer in the afternoon, and go explain it to the people you’re trying to help at a community meeting that evening,” Donahue said. “That may not happen every day, but it happens often enough that it’s a very satisfying experience.”
Bowser is not the first to attract national managers into city government. Donahue and Zeilinger, for instance, also worked for Adrian M. Fenty when he was mayor. Vincent C. Gray’s chief of staff was Christopher Murphy, a former deputy director of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But the class of arrivals from the federal government or Capitol Hill is larger this year than any in recent memory. And for some, one motivation was a very powerful, and in some cases very new, sense of seeing D.C. as home.
That is true for LaDavia Drane, the former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus. Drane began her career in business law, worked as a congressional legislative director on Capitol Hill and then traveled the country for the Congressional Black Caucus. She always assumed that another job on Capitol Hill or a position at a K Street lobbying shop “was a much more likely next step.”
“I have to be honest,” said Drane, Bowser’s director of the newly created Office of Federal and Regional Affairs. “I’ve never been engaged in D.C. very much. . . . It’s very easy when you work for the federal government in D.C. to not feel like D.C. is home. You can still vote back home and still pay taxes back home.”
That changed for Drane about five years ago, when she and her husband bought a home in Ward 4, which Bowser represented on the D.C. Council. When the couple had a son last summer, they found themselves thinking about city schools and parks in ways they never had before.
“When I was on the Hill, I worked for my hometown congressman. There was something about working on things about my home town. . . . So this became a very logical transition — to my newfound home town. It was really just perfect.”
Jackson’s transition to local politics began with an intense experience two years ago. Walking home through the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, he and visiting cousins from North Carolina found themselves caught in the crossfire of a shootout. Jackson was struck in the leg.
“Luckily, I was the only one shot,” Jackson said, “but I really couldn’t believe that this happened in the place that was my city.” He began volunteering in his off hours, which he found fulfilling in ways that had begun to dissipate in his federal work.
When Jackson was shot, he was lobbying for Obama’s post-Newtown effort to pass stricter gun-control laws, through the president’s Organizing for Action group. The legislation failed the day before Jackson was shot.
His sense of purpose did not get much better when he moved over to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Continuing to work on campaigns after the last election felt hollow when so little could be done in a divided government.
“There has been very little if anything accomplished beyond executive orders,” he said. “I realized that for me to just continue in campaigns and politics would be to kind of divorce myself from where I started. I started because I believed we would have an impact.”
In January, Jackson’s name circulated among former Democratic National Committee staffers Michael Czin and Steven Walker, who had already come over to Bowser’s team as communications director and talent scout. They asked Jackson to consider meeting with the mayor about leading her effort to ramp up community relations to a 24-hour, rapid-response operation.
Bowser said luring national-caliber managers was an important goal for her administration.
“We went for interesting people, people I thought who had innovative ideas, people who I think have a lot of energy and people I’d like to work with,” she said.
An additional benefit, she said, is resetting the District’s image in a way that helps combat one of its largest challenges: slowing the exodus of the city’s higher achievers to Maryland or Virginia once they are ready to buy a home or have children.
A shifting population and upward enrollment in city schools offer encouraging signs for Bowser. But recent city statistics show that parents, especially middle- or high-income earners, remain as likely to leave the city in the first four years of parenting as they were a decade ago.
Jackson, for one, is ready to preach. He knows calls may be coming for him to join campaigns in 2016, but right now he is focused on D.C.
“Imagine,” he said, “if everyone put at least a quarter of the energy they put into national and federal politics into their local community and how much of a difference the city would be.”