Serving in Politics Is Tough But Rewarding, Say Alumni
Contact: Mary Wood
With seven members of the U.S. Senate among its alumni base, Virginia Law has been a frequent launching pad to elected political office. Virginia House of Delegates members Rob Bell ’95, Bill Janis ’00, and former delegate and 2005 candidate for lieutenant governor Chap Peterson ’94 discussed how to translate the skills learned in law school into votes at the ballot box during an Oct. 26 event sponsored by the Public Service Center.
The three emphasized that there is no one set path to get to the House of Delegates. Bell said that working as a prosecutor, involving himself in the right community organizations, and volunteering for campaigns allowed him to enter his race as the favorite. Peterson, on the other hand, was elected to the Fairfax City Council while working as an associate at a large law firm. In 2001, six weeks after September 11, Peterson was on the ballot as a Democrat against a Republican incumbent. Peterson was the only Democrat to pick up a seat that year, thanks in large part to the climate in Northern Virginia with local Mark Warner running for governor.
Janis took a completely different path. “I wanted to be an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in the county of Henrico. By the time that there were any job vacancies in the commonwealth attorney’s office, I was already a member of the House of Delegates, and that’s how quickly I got elected.” Janis is originally from Chicago, and came to Virginia for college at the Virginia Military Institute. After a career in the Navy that included a stint in the Persian Gulf War, work at the National Security Agency, time in submarines, and living in nine locations in 11 years, Janis and his wife decided it was time to settle down when kids came along. Needing a post-military career, he went to law school. Within 18 months of graduating from law school, Janis served as political director for Congressman Eric Cantor, had done policy work in the Virginia House of Delegates, and ran for the House of Delegates twice, winning once.
Money is a big factor for politicians, both at the front end to finance campaigns, and at the back end to live on once elected.
“You don’t make any money in politics in this state,” Peterson said. After he ran for lieutenant governor, Peterson decided to return to private practice rather than continue in politics. “I couldn’t make money. For me to be able to pay the mortgage, I had to step out and just practice law full time.”
Janis noted that the practice of law has evolved in recent years, making it increasingly difficult for lawyers to serve as politicians. “There was a time before advertising, before the Internet, that being in the legislature was perceived to be an advantage [to private practice] because you had a network of legal colleagues around the commonwealth that could send you referrals back and forth,” Janis said. “We are foreclosed by legal ethics opinions written in the 1970s from doing all sorts of legal work that would be the most natural fit for us by virtue of the fact that there is a perceived conflict of interest. A large law firm that represents interests before the General Assembly—we can’t even be associate attorneys [there].”
Once a candidate makes the decision to run, they have to get elected. Money is essential here, as well. “Running statewide, I had 20 people working for me, and had to raise $3,000 a day just so I could pay my staff. I was on the phone constantly,” Peterson said.
All three agreed that raising the money is a slow, and somewhat torturous, process. “My opponent in 2003 spent $380,000 trying to pick me off in an election. I spent $390,000. If you had ever told me that I could have raised $100,000 for a campaign, I wouldn’t have believed you. I raised it $50 at a time, $80 at a time, and that means that you spend a lot of time on the phone and at barbeques.” Janis said that while the process is long and involved, it is one of the most important tests of how serious candidates are. If a candidate can’t sell their friends and local business leaders on giving them money, they likely won’t be able to sell voters. Janis admitted the money can create a negative impression about the entire political process. “My dad would say ‘anyone who would spend $380,000 to get a $17,000 a year job has got to be a crook,’” he quipped.
Bell said that the most successful politicians have the same basic set of skills. “You have to want to do two things: you have to like the policy, and you have to like the politics. If you don’t like both, you won’t be happy,” he said. “I liked politics as a volunteer and watched enough people doing it that, over time, I said to myself ‘I can do that.’ By the time of my election day, I was broke, my wife was mad at me, I had lost my job. If you had said to me that I would put all of those eggs in one basket, I would have said never. But the process is incremental, all leading up to the long day of the election.”
Although the process is hard, it is a great opportunity for personal growth, panelists said. “Every morning I wake up, I take nothing for granted. I don’t take my job for granted, I don’t take my wife or kids for granted, I didn’t take my political office for granted,” Peterson said. “Every day you have to prove yourself all over again. Every election is a new challenge.”
The three said that it is the honor of serving and the opportunity to represent bigger ideas that makes the stress and difficulties of the process worthwhile. Bell noted that the Virginia House of Delegates is the second-oldest elected body in human history, after the British House of Commons. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry all served as Virginia delegates.
“Those who have the opportunity to serve, and ability to serve, have a duty to serve,” Janis said. “You’re going to reach a point where the opportunity presents itself, you have prepared yourself for it, and you’re going to have to make the decision if it’s the right time for your family…if we’re not doing it, someone else will. But we think if you have the opportunity to do it, you should.”
• Reported by Robin Cook '07