Congress

Try again: Lofgren rejects House clerk’s eyebrow-raising choice

2018 college graduate recommended to lead staff after Rep. Sean Duffy resignation

House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., rejected a request by House Clerk Cheryl L. Johnson to hire a 2018 college graduate as chief of staff for the vacant office of Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Sean Duffy left Congress months ago, but his office remains without a chief after a key lawmaker rejected an attempt to install a recent college graduate with no legislative experience and who is the daughter of a House official.

Duffy’s last chief of staff, Pete Meachum, departed the post on Dec. 6.

House Administration Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., turned down a Dec. 3 request from House Clerk Cheryl L. Johnson to hire Olivia Cole, who graduated from college last year. She is the daughter of one of the House’s two reading clerks, Susan Cole.

The younger Cole most recently worked as a server at Crystal City Sports Pub.

Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, resigned from Congress Sept. 23. Duffy’s departure leaves Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District without a member and the vacancy is not set to be filled until a May special election.

Johnson’s Dec. 3 hire request to Lofgren notes that Cole was selected to begin working as chief of staff in Duffy's former office on Dec. 16, earning an annual salary of $85,000.

However, both Democrats and Republicans on the House Administration Committee — the panel that approves such hires — agreed that Cole was not the right fit for the open position to lead Duffy’s old office.

“Chairperson Lofgren received the request, reviewed it, and rejected it,” said Peter Whippy, a spokesman for the House Administration Committee Democrats.

Courtney Parella, a spokesperson for the committee Republicans, said the minority was disappointed with the actions of the clerk’s office.

“Our committee has an important responsibility to oversee the House Officers, and one of our many goals is to professionalize Congress by ensuring the House runs efficiently and ethically,” she said. “The minority was disappointed by the recent actions of the Clerk’s office, and we will continue to work in a bipartisan fashion with our majority on House operation decisions.”

When CQ Roll Call asked the clerk for comment about the selection, a spokesperson for the clerk replied without getting into specifics of why Cole was selected or reacting to the House Administration Committee’s rejection of Cole.

“House Rules provide the authority for the Clerk to supervise the staff and manage Vacant offices. In practice, the Clerk becomes the employing authority for the office, and is the designated steward of the office until a successor is elected. All staff on payroll at time of vacancy may remain on payroll until successor is elected. In circumstances where the Chief of Staff does not stay on the Clerk will look to hire a new Chief of Staff," the spokesperson said. 

"The Clerk will make recommendations for the Chief of Staff, subject to the approval of Committee on House Administration. The Clerk primarily seeks persons who will ensure that the vacant office provides excellent customer service to constituents. The Office of the Clerk will continue to look for other well-qualified candidates," the spokesperson added.

When a member of the House departs, whether he or she resigns, dies or is expelled, the House clerk takes over operations of the office to address the needs of constituents. This includes providing information about the status of legislation and constituent casework. The district does not have any voting representation until a new member arrives.

Although the departed member’s staff typically can stay on until a replacement is elected, many leave in the meantime, and the clerk hires on a needed basis until the new member arrives.

The most recent reported salary of Duffy’s last chief of staff, Meachum, was $168,411 per year. It is unclear why none of the Duffy staffers still on payroll were not moved into the chief of staff role. 

UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 12: Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisc., and his wife Rachel Campos-Duffy board a bus outside the Rayburn House Office Building at the Capitol as House Republicans prepare to head to their retreat in Baltimore on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Former Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Wisc., and his wife Rachel Campos-Duffy. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Cole’s resume lists experience in food service industry jobs. Her resume also notes that she played four years of varsity lacrosse for the University of Florida Gators — along with several school activities — such as working in communications for Florida’s athletics department.

Neither Olivia Cole nor Susan Cole responded to requests for comment.  

Although a vacant office is not necessarily a destination job for Capitol Hill staffers, the post of chief of staff is usually reserved for those with some Capitol Hill or government experience. It is not uncommon for children of those who work on Capitol Hill to get jobs through connections; however, they don’t normally enter the congressional workforce in a position as senior as chief of staff.

There are two House reading clerks, one appointed by Democrats, one appointed by Republicans. Susan Cole was first tapped by the GOP in 2007 and has served in the capacity since. The House clerk herself was appointed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In Johnson’s request to hire Cole, she cited Cole’s “exceptional customer service experience and a strong passion for public service.” Cole’s resume says she lives in Virginia.

“She will be an asset in continuing the high level of excellence when dealing with constituents for the state of Wisconsin,” Johnson wrote. “Olivia has proven herself to be a hard worker and very detail oriented. These qualities combined will allow the WI-07 office to continue to provide excellent constituent services until a new member is elected.”

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