13 Politics Alums Pressing the Levers of Power
The 2016 Life After Politics event was held on Friday the 28th—thirteen department alums revealed their secrets to successful careers and the rocky roads they took to get there. The annual event includes a panel of five alums drawn from the myriad paths a degree in politics can take you—law (Stuart Pape – Head of FDA Practice, Polsinelli PC), the House (Kyle Matous – Chief of Staff, U.S. Representative Pete Sessions), the Senate (Ethan Thrasher – Legislative Correspondent, Senator Mark Warner), strategic communications (Vicki Ballagh – Director, The Incite Agency), NGOs and non-profits (Langdon Greenhalgh – Director & Co-Founder, Global Emergency Group).
The panel session was followed by Flash Mentoring, a rapid-fire Q&A about jobs, protocol, procedure, and networking between alums and students. In addition to the panelists, other active alum mentors included Haley Anderson – Speech-Language Pathologist, Margaret Brennan – CBS News Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Mary Kate Cary – Speechwriter, Columnist, and Documentarian, Jennifer Clarke – Trial Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice, Cameron Kilberg – Partner, Rubin & Rudman, David Mrazik – Managing Partner at Hamburger Law Firm & Managing Director at MarketCounsel, Gabriel Noronha – Staff Assistant, US Senate, Peter Page – Founder and President, SageWater, Inc.
The job titles and names of employers only partially indicate what happens post-graduation. Rich careers are forged over time and the mentor participants tell stories, both touching and hilarious, illustrating the different paths.
During his third year Langdon Greenhalgh had an internship at the Horizon Institute in Charlottesville, after graduation it turned into a job. A year later the Executive Director decided to move on and at (only!) 22 years old, Greenhalgh took his place. Shortly he moved to Washington to work at the international policy arm of the Red Cross. He enjoyed policy, but wanted to be on the front lines in providing humanitarian assistance. The organization was starting an International Response Team which he joined. He found himself flying in helicopters over mudslides in Venezuala, earthquakes in El Salvador and India, and conducting tsunami response in Indonesia. After several years he felt he had hit the ceiling at the Red Cross. He became a serial entrepreneur in the humanitarian aid world. He started his current business in 2008, the Global Emergency Group, and he is in the process of starting a related non-profit organization.
Department chair, David Leblang, has been known to sigh when mentioning law school as an option after graduation. But for many grads, the path naturally leads to this, and has so for years. Stuart Pape chose it (Govt 73, UVA Law 74) and went to work for the Chief Counsel’s Office in the FDA for five years. He says government work is a very rewarding path—work/life balance, opportunity for rapid advancement, and salary equity for women and men.
Also, you don’t have to be a lawyer to have a great career working for an Executive Branch agency. Great jobs in policy, as policy analysts, and in legislative affairs, with greater responsibility and intellectual stimulation much earlier in your career. He became the Senior Food Lawyer within three years of getting his law degree. Pape’s professional career has been at the interception of FDA law and policy, and he attributes the policy work to his undergraduate degree from the department.
Kyle Matous and Ethan Thrasher are in what might be the closest thing to politics. Matous works in Representative Pete Sessions office (R-TX) and Thrasher works in Senator Warner’s office (D-VA).
Like Pape, Matous also took the law school approach. He is now Chief of Staff for Representative Pete Sessions. As a Republican this year, he has more than his fair share of questions about the election. He gingerly answered some and gingerly avoided others. His caution in answering is, no doubt, a result of working with a high visibility politician in the public eye.
When he arrived at UVA he knew he wanted to go into politics. But due to circumstances beyond his control (9/11) he only had three years to complete his studies at UVA. In his third year he had an internship with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. “They put us in the back room of some office building and just dumped mail on the table and we sorted it. We just put it in piles for eight weeks.”
He worked at a Charlottesville start-up for a couple of years then entered law school at Pepperdine. He spent time as an attorney in human rights law in Uganda, working multi-billion dollar arbitration cases at WilmerHale and at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, but none of these areas were what he wanted to devote himself to.
So he returned to the place he said he’d never go again, the Hill. He started as a Staff Assistant for the House Rules Committee. He knew his boss would be leaving shortly, but he had to do something, so he took the risk of staying. Pete Sessions became the head of the Rules Committee in 2013 and in an unusual move kept Matous around. He quickly became a Policy Assistant, then a Special Assistant for a few months, somehow skipped ahead a few steps and became the Policy Director of the Rules Committee. After two years on the committee Representative Sessions brought him on as Chief of Staff. Age 31.
Unlike Matous, Ethan Thrasher loved his internship. During his second year at UVA he got an internship at the Center for Politics where he fell in love with politics. Among other rewards, the internship provided him with the opportunity to work on the Kennedy Half Century book, and to adopt the Center’s bi-partisan spin which let’s him look at both sides.
His colleagues at the Center encouraged him to go for an internship on the Hill. He joined Senator Warner’s office during his third year and happily found they allowed him to prepare briefings and memos—and to make him feel like he’s part of the team. After graduation his thoughts were, “Consulting, all other types of jobs? Forget that, I’m going back to the Hill.” For his first job out of school he returned to Warner’s office and worked in scheduling and working the phones (a highlight he says, “You hear a lot of political conversations, you normally wouldn’t hear…the stories!”). He was fortunate to have a job open up on the legislative side and now works on banking, housing, and transportation policy for the Senator.
He’s back to writing memos and briefings, preparing the Senator for meetings, daily events, and travel.
Vicki Ballagh got her dream internship between her 3rd and 4th years at Meet The Press. “Fantastic, interesting people.” But she realized, “I want to be the person with the answers, the people on the other side.”
After graduating she started at Bully Pulpit Interactive doing media ad buying. She says, “I was a human Excel spreadsheet, targeting voters for political campaigns and corporate campaigns.” Not exactly what she was looking for. She still wanted to be the person answering the questions.
Right time, right place. Two former Obama staffers were just coming off duties for the administration—Robert Gibbs (Director of Communications and later Press Secretary) and Ben LaBolt (National Press Secretary for President Obama’s re-election campaign) opened the Incite Agency which answers the strategic demands of campaigns needing a digital edge. Ballagh’s experience in media, production, and politics led her to the agency; a colleague passed her resume to the agency who hired her.
Please join us next year for Life After Politics (sign up here to receive announcements and other Department of Politics news). We will have a new set of panelists and mentors covering the realm of politics and sharing what next.