“Political connections” has a negative connotation in the job-hunting milieu. That is totally unwarranted. Using such contacts is merely another means of networking, and a very productive one if the connections are real and can be worked effectively.
First, some misconceptions about political connections that warrant debunking:
They are only useful if you want to work in Washington, DC or a state capital. Suffice it to say that they can be valuable anywhere. Geography is irrelevant.
Political connections can only get you a political appointment. Certainly, it helps immensely to have a politician intervene in your behalf if you are seeking a political appointment. However, their effectiveness in this venue is limited by several factors: the relatively few political appointments available to governmental executives and legislators; and the infrequency of vacancies, absent a wholesale change of administrations or a party flip in the legislative realm.
The reality is that politicians are consummate networkers and come into contact with influential people in all walks of life and all employment sectors—lobbyists representing interest groups, corporate executives, small business owners, attorneys, journalists, political intelligence gatherers, think tanks, public policy organizations, etc. Which is why a politician is such a wonderful networking contact regardless of what you are seeking or where you are seeking it.
Only the politicians themselves qualify as political connections. Don’t forget about staff members in the politician’s office, as well as committee and subcommittee staffers serving the bodies to which the politician is assigned. Keep in mind that politicians at the Federal (and sometimes the state) level have staffers back home in their district offices as well. Similarly, large campaign contributors are the constant companions of everyone who runs for political office. Numerous websites and directories can tell you who they are.
You have to know the politician personally to be able to invoke him or her as a political connection. This myth is closely linked to the one above. It is nice, but not always necessary to know the politician personally if someone the politician knows, respects, or is beholden to, gives you a strong endorsement. This could be anyone with close ties to the officeholder, including professors you had who have served on advisory bodies or who counsel politicians.
A politician at one level of government is of no value for getting a job at another level of government. Politicians at all levels of government know each other quite well, work closely with each other, and are always taking each others’ pulses on the issues of the day. If you are chummy with the local city council member who lives down the block, you may have a conduit to a politician at the state or Federal level who can prove quite beneficial to your cause.
Example. My wife’s aunt is the mayor of a small city in upstate New York. She regularly meets with—and sometimes breaks bread with—the Governor, state legislative leaders, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Chuck Schumer, among other luminaries.
The only politicians who can help get anyone a job are legislators. Both elected officials and unelected political appointees can be tremendously helpful.
Developing Political Connections from Scratch
The most effective way to do this, of course, is if you, daddy or mommy contributes large amounts of money to politicians. For the rest of us, here are a few other suggestions:
Volunteer to Work on a Political Campaign. Lawyers have considerable value in political campaigns. Most write reasonably well, so they are excellent drafters of “white” papers/position papers/press releases on issues in areas of their expertise or concerning legal/legislative topics or campaign issues.
Lawyers have a keen sense of what is legally possible and what is not. This can be of help in crafting a candidate’s legislative platform and in poking holes in the opponent’s program.
Lawyers have a keen sense of nuanced and ambiguous language. This can be of help when reviewing campaign statements and advertisements for potentially explosive or defamatory statements.
Lawyers have a keen sense concerning money and other kinds of campaign contributions. Simply being able to warn a candidate about what could be “crossing-the-line” is important…even if the advice is ignored.
Volunteer to Assist a Sitting Legislator Draft Legislation. One of our counseling clients in New England, who was very interested in international trade law, carved out a niche for herself by volunteering, on behalf of the local world trade council of which she was a member, to draft legislation authorizing the state to open two trade development offices in Europe. In the course of preparing the legislation, she met several state legislators who were able to assist her later in her efforts to secure Federal employment in the international trade area.
Teacher Entree to Political Contacts: Finally, Something Your Teachers Can Do For You. Consider using your law school professors (or undergraduate teachers) as conduits to their influential friends in high political office. This is particularly useful if you happen to have attended a big-time, “name” institution, since professors from these schools are the most likely to be tapped as advisors by politicians. The higher the political office, the narrower the universe from which the intellectuals serving the politician come. For presidents, you are largely limited to the Ivy League and comparable institutions like Stanford and Berkeley. However, all politicians at the national level–cabinet secretaries and their top aides, Senators, even House members–like the feeling of being able to tap into the immense pool of all-too-willing academics and have them and their theories swirl around them, creating the illusion of thoughtfulness and ideas. Beyond the personal advisory role, many academics serve on national, state, and local advisory boards, commissions, task forces and the like where they mingle and interact with politicians. As a result, you have a unique opportunity today: the chances that one of your professors is close to a national politician are pretty good. And if you have a decent dose of chutzpa, you can milk that connection to your advantage.