When Your Political Boss is a Bully

On February 9, 2008, I was a day away from turning 29 years-old. I found myself having driven just over three hours south on that Saturday to Norfolk, Virginia, and sitting on a bench in Town Point Park, staring blankly for hours into the Elizabeth River. My grandfather had been stationed in Norfolk during his time in the Navy, and he had married my grandmother there in 1941. Granddad had been gone for five years at the point I found myself on the bench in the park, but I thought by being in a place that he’d once been, some of his wisdom would rub off on me while I considered the state of my life. It was unseasonably warm, but I’d have probably sat there even if it were freezing. At one moment, I remember thinking I should jump in the river.

The next moment, thankfully, I realized that was a ridiculous thought, and it was time to remove the thing that could possibly make me that unhappy from my life. Unfortunately, it was my job.

In late 2007, I moved to DC to join the office of Tim Murphy (R-PA). Yep, that one. This was a time when Republicans were in the minority in Congress, and their popularity was continuing to crumble. Any job was a good job because it was a job.

I had, in a mere few months, been yelled at for having a Southern accent; berated in front of the rest of the leg shop for not being able to come up with a state-awarded academic accomplishment to note in a one-minute speech I’d written on a high school that won a state football championship, even after the school’s administration told me none existed; and worse. This post is not, however, about my venting on a former employer who was a bully (though some of my former co-workers have, and that particular article has hit me in the heart). I tell those stories above, barely grazing the surface of what happened during my time there, to speak to any current staffers on campaigns or in Hill offices who are in bad situations.

When I finally drove back to DC that afternoon, I emailed someone I barely knew, but I knew she was a friend to those in harsh offices. To this day, she is and will always be my Hill Savior. My email was very succinct, and it basically asked if she had anything — and I meant anything — I could do in her boss’s office just to move into a different situation. She made up an unpaid fellowship for me, and I was in that job three months before I landed a paying gig. But I no longer dreaded work. I didn’t feel as though I was pitted against my co-workers. In fact, I still love every one of those folks that I worked with in that office. One of the legislative assistants got me on a list of Hill girls who babysat. Everyone else participating was doing it for extra income; but it was my mainstay survival over that three month period. Any time any of the staff came across a temp job for a day or two, they recommended me. I’d be remiss to not mention that my parents would, without telling me, drop money in the account they still had their names on with me at their credit union, having opened it at my birth. I absolutely could not have made it without all of those folks pitching in to make sure I was able to keep a roof over my head after I escaped the bad situation.

These kind of decent people still exist on the Hill, and they exist in within this state. Please reach out to someone you trust if you’re being bullied at your current job. This isn’t in any way normal, and you shouldn’t accept it. It will not get better, and you should not hang in there for a year or even six months. I don’t care if you’re convinced you’re working for the next governor, senator, congressman, or what. Statistically, bullied employees end up losing their jobs in the United States 82 percent of the time, regardless of whether they flee or are eventually fired. Where you leap will be better than where you are, even if it’s a struggle. Go. Now.

I didn’t realize until recently how much and how long I was affected by my time in the Murphy office, even though I worked there only a few months. I now recognize some very weird reactions I’ve had that related directly to my time there. Once, the day I joined the office where I had the created-for-me fellowship, I cried after a coworker helped me fix a computer issue and no one acted like I was a raving moron for not knowing how to fix it myself. About two years later, I was panicked over my response time to constituents’ mail during the height of the PPACA debates, and I was afraid to tell my chief of staff and legislative director. When I finally did, their response was, “We’ll help you!” and again, I cried because there was no yelling or belittling. I have weaseled out of going to DC several times recently because I dread visiting the Hill. That’s nothing to do with the offices I worked for and loved and everything to do with the last time I visited the last Member for whom I worked. I saw Murphy on the way out of the building and he stared at me, not changing his demeanor even after I addressed him directly, saying hello. He just continued to look through me as though he was willing me not to exist. He’s gone from that place now, or he will be soon, so I hope the dread will dissipate.

In case you’re sympathizing with me, let me assure you I don’t deserve it. At all.

Tim Murphy is leaving Congress on October 21st. I, however, last worked on the Hill back in 2011. It’s 2017, and I have never said a word publicly about the office I left almost 10 years ago until now, when he’s on his way out, and when no one else will apply for a job with that staff. I am a giant chicken and so much worse. The Politico article linked above accurately outlines what it was like working there, and at least one of my former co-workers was brave enough to tell potential employees to run. I didn’t, and I have had to live with it. It weighs heavily on my conscience, especially this week, but certainly not only this week. How many others could I have stopped? Why didn’t I speak, especially after I realized I would never return to the Hill?

Therein is the second point — speak up. The House Office of Compliance obviously failed my former co-workers who reported their treatment. I’d like to tell you that it was a temporary failing, but I’ve never seen the OOC as a helpful or (more accurately) remotely meaningful entity. That’s not who you should tell.

Here is where campaigns and congressional offices become problematic: There is no real HR department to address your concerns. You are an at-will employee, and Congress has managed to exempt itself from from most of the fair employment practices to which the rest of American employers are subject. Oh, sure, as part of the Contract with America, Newt and the gang passed the Congressional Accountability Act in 1995 to end all of the congressional exemptions, but rather than make Congress adhere to existing federal laws in the same manner as every other American employer, it created the aforementioned OOC, which is “self-policing” and therefore absolutely worthless. Its loyalty will always be to Members and never to staff. So, you have exactly as much protection as campaign staffers. I’m truly sorry about that.

There are things you can do.

First of all, talk to your coworkers about the bullying. I realize this can be difficult, and it seems disloyal. You may feel as though you’ll be seen as a bigmouth, someone who can’t be a team player and should be shunned in the future. However, if the candidate or congressperson is treating you like crap, can you really be the only one? You will probably gain some allies this way, or at least sympathetic ears. Further, can you honestly expect him or her to treat their constituents any better than they treat you? I realize we’re in a weird era, where some Republicans who used to care about character say things like, “well, he or she votes the right way, so that’s all that matters.” I’ll admit that I don’t know if any Democrats say things like that, but they’re equally as stupid as Republicans who say it if they do. All you have to do is look at Murphy and the constituents of PA-18 to know how wrongheaded this idea is. He clearly wanted his constituents to do as he said, not as he did, and now everyone’s embarrassed. On top of all of the embarrassment, PA-18 has a six point Democratic voter registration advantage, and anything can happen with special elections, meaning a once-safe Republican seat no longer is so.

Here’s where we fell down in the Murphy office: We didn’t stand together and push back. I let my coworkers be upbraided while I looked down at my desk and didn’t say a thing; they did likewise. We were all friends back then, but we’re distant now. Sure, I have some of them on my Facebook feed, but that’s not real interaction. Whereas I still keep in touch by emails, calls, and visits with coworkers from every single other office or campaign where I worked, this one is the exception. I hope they’re well, but the truth is we isolated ourselves back then, so we weren’t presenting our best selves to each other. That made the foundation shaky. If we had stood together, I think we’d have the strongest bond of any office I worked for, because we’d have survived something truly awful and come out on the other side. Alas.

Secondly, document what’s happening to you, whether in writing or recording. Both Georgia and DC are one-party consent states when it comes to recording conversations, so as long as you’re a party to the conversation, you have a right to record without telling your boss. We have a really great, recent case of why documentation is important in the form of James Comey, the former Head of the FBI who was allegedly bullied by President Trump. His memos leave a detailed record of when irregularities occurred, lending his assertions more credibility. It’s one thing that I remember being yelled at about the way I pronounced “hi,” but it would have been far better if I could accurately recount the specific date and time, and who else was around at the time that could corroborate my story.

You may not want to keep possession of these notes or recordings, as a bully will relish finding something like that and use it to further torment you. There are probably others who you trust within or around the party structures, or heck, completely outside of the political realm! Please, whoever it is that you think can help you, reach out and get their help.

Side note — please talk to College Republicans and College Democrats to warn these soon-to-be campaign and Congressional staffers away from places they shouldn’t be. Let’s not crush their souls two or three months out of college.

To sum up, be like me, and then don’t be like me. Get out of there, document what’s happening, and speak up against your bully. As for me, writing this column was cathartic, but it can’t absolve me of anything. Sure, the weird moments where I seem to cry for no reason are gone, but I still have the nagging in my gut about the folks I didn’t try to dissuade from working in a deplorable environment. I can’t take back the years of inaction, but I can dedicate time going forward to push for an OOC with more teeth — or maybe get quixotic and push for the 28th Amendment to be the one from Rand Paul about Congress not exempting itself from laws. I can no longer sit back and hope it gets better on its own. I know full well it does not.

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Saltycracker
Saltycracker

You give a great personal testimony for just one of many, many reasons for us to set term limits.
Murphy repeated 8 terms.

Once elected most of those promising limits become politically intoxcated and put it on the back shelf. Sure we can vote, but that has limitations in the process.

The usual reasons against are the best for: the government would be run by bureaucrats (because we elect leaders that are clueless on how to make good decisions or we like a small percentage of them.)

Ellynn
Ellynn

Coming forward is scary. If you accuse a person in a respected and/or powerful position, you have to have proof, and you have to be willing to handle the folks who will say you are lying, that you have trying to bring a person down. You place yourself out in the open, a target who will be bullied even more. Saying nothing is scary too. You place yourself in this ‘live to survive’ mode and you can doubt whether you even experienced it. You fell guilt because you did what you needed to do to cause no more harm to… Read more »

Benevolus
Benevolus

This has nothing to do with term limits for God’s sake.

Thank you Holly. Learning to live with a burden is something most of us have had to wrestle with. Don’t feel you are worse than most of us, because most of us are on that same train.

Lea Thrace
Lea Thrace

Exactly! Crappy bosses and people are crappy whether their tenure is 1 year or 20 years.

Gregs
Gregs

I read this twice and I’m glad I did. The first time I read it was with an almost self righteous judgement. The second time not so much. Thanks for the kind of insight I’ve come to expect from the writers at GAPOL.

I’ll sum up my thoughts with this quote:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke.