My guest today, Jamie Hantman, has worked at the highest levels of government, including spearheading legislative strategy for the confirmations of not one, but two U.S. Supreme Court justices. She also ran legislative affairs for the Department of Justice shortly after 9/11. In 2008, Politico called Jamie ‘One of the 50 politicos to watch.”
Today, Jamie talks to us about her new book, Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in A Red/Blue Town. In this book, Jamie gives readers an insider’s look into life on the Hill and what it was like to work on the fabled “K-Street” and in the White House. She also shares her experience finding bipartisan love in a partisan city and explains how that allowed her to broaden her political views.
Nikki Van Noy: Jamie, let’s start today by sharing with listeners how you got started in politics.
Jamie Hantman: Well, I was one of those kids who grew up in a family where my parents talked about news and what was going. I remember waking up early the morning after the presidential election in 1980 and asking my parents who had won and, based on their feelings about Jimmy Carter losing, that making me happy because that’s what my parents wanted.
I grew up in a house where people cared about news and it took off from there. We weren’t politically connected, my mom was an educator and my dad was involved in computers, but they were interested citizens. So, they loved to tell the story that when I was, I think, nine months old, the very first car ride that we took was to DC. It was a long car trip, and they wanted to go to a boat show in Minneapolis. Apparently, they took a little detour through DC and drove around and said, “Jamie, look, we’re in DC, you’re going to work here someday.”
They never rammed it down my throat, but maybe it was just more of an intuition thing that they had that ended up being the case. I was drawn to it and it wasn’t necessarily “This is what I must do,” but once I was done with school and graduate school, it was more a question of, “I’m not sure what I’m completely passionate about so let me try this and if I like it, great, if I don’t, it’s not the end of the world, I can try something else.” That was how I ended up involved in DC politics.
Nikki Van Noy: How did you get your first job? Did you go straight into politics or was there something in between?
Jamie Hantman: When I was in college, about mid-way through college, I decided I wanted to try and get an internship and go to DC for the summer. There was a program where you could take a couple of classes on politics and have economics in the morning. It was at Georgetown. Then in the afternoon, everybody would scatter around the town and do internships.
That winter, before I was going to go to DC, the admissions director at the college I attended, Cedarville, knew I was interested in politics. At the last minute said, “I just got a couple of tickets to the inauguration,” and this was for George W. Bush in 1989. They said, “If you can get yourself to DC, you’re welcome to have this other ticket.” My parents said yes and paid for the plane ticket. I went out to DC, went to the inauguration, and it was my first time ever attending any kind of political event in person. It was thrilling from start to finish.
Obviously, I was way back in the mall and not anywhere close to the action, but it was just really exciting to be there. When I was there, I decided to also figure out how to go see my newly elected Senator. My family was living in Florida at the time and Connie Mac III had just been elected to the Senate from Florida. He was a Republican and a House member. So, through some sleuth, I found out that he was hosting his new Senator “Welcome to Washington” reception right after the inauguration.
I went into a crowded hotel ballroom at the Hyatt Regency, right near the capital building. Totally uninvited, I went in there and acted like I was supposed to be there. I found them and went up, my heart was pounding a mile a minute, and just put my hand out and said, “Senator Mac, I’m Jamie Brown, I’m applying to be an intern in your office this summer, I hope to be able to work for you. Congratulations on your election.”
He said something nice and kind, as politicians do and that was it. I felt great about it because I’d taken a risk, and I did end up getting an internship with him for that summer. Once I learned sort of how things worked, after I’d been involved in Senator offices for a little bit, I realized that going up to him at that reception probably didn’t have anything to do with getting the internship ultimately. But for me, knowing that I’d done something that scared me, made me feel great about what I could do.
I did the internship and one of the things that I learned quickly is that internships on Capitol Hill require you to do a ton of things that are well below your experience and intellectual capabilities, but it’s the grunt work and somebody has to do it. Part of what an internship is, it’s showing the people who work in the office who is a good sport and has a great attitude, and who is going to complain and whine about all these things that are beneath them.
Guess what? People don’t want to hire that person who is whining because they’re better than this. They’re going to hire somebody who is hungry and has a good attitude, gets it done, and somebody you just basically want to be around, it’s human nature. I did my best in my internship, and I was able to actually get an opportunity to brief the Senator on some things. I helped one of the legislative staff–they were pretty busy and it’s very unusual to have that happen in an internship these days because most of those offices are pretty big with a lot of staff, but I was able to do a briefing and leave a good impression.
I’d kept in touch with the people in the office, and I went to law school in DC at Georgetown, which the proximity of being able to stop into the office and keep up the relationships, I think, was obviously a very good thing. Once law school was done, the Chief of Staff said, “If we have a position, once you’re ready and looking for a job, we’d love to be able to bring you on.” That’s how I was able to get my first job out of law school.
I was hired to be legislative council to Senator Mac, which is a pretty good job for a first-year law school graduate.
Nikki Van Noy: That grunt work paid off.
Jamie Hantman: It did. You’ve got to have a good attitude, and it’s all about the people. If you show yourself to be someone that they want to be around, they’re going to want you there. It’s just human nature.
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about the vibe on Capitol Hill? Going back to that internship, what did it feel like to you being there?
Jamie Hantman: I mean, it was absolutely amazing, everything was new. I was still in college and I actually went to a little Baptist college, so it was a little bit more of a sheltered experience, compared to then being in what I felt like was the big city with all these grownups. I am dating myself, but I did my internship in 1989 and things were a little wilder back then, I would say.
People were still smoking in their offices in the Senate office buildings and bringing out the beer towards the end of the day, and language–just everything about it was a little different than a typical workplace today. I thought it was just so fun and fascinating. They were working really hard–I don’t mean to lead with the extracurricular aspects of it.
It was very intense, and Senator Mac was a brand-new senator, so they were still trying to figure out the type of office that they were going to have for him. The staff was figuring out their roles and there’s so much happening on Capitol Hill at any one time. I mean, every senator’s on numerous committees, and most of the time, your committees are having meetings at the same time, so your staff is trying to figure out how to have you be two places at once, and they’re going to vote in this committee, and then a banking committee at 10:30, but they’re not going to vote in joint economic committee until 11, so let’s start you in the one and then move to the other.
Trying to cover all the bases, and tons of meetings with constituents, and briefings on issues. Then you go to the Senate floor and vote, and that interrupts everything, and you don’t know exactly when that’s going to happen, a lot of the time.
So much was going on and I knew then, that it was an incredible privilege to be able to help support what he was doing, even in a small way. I guess I would say I caught the bug. I mean, it’s an intoxicating place to be.
Nikki Van Noy: I was going to ask you that, hearing you talk about it. It sounds so cinematic and like being in the center of the universe. Did it feel like that to you?
Jamie Hantman: Certainly, at times. More once I was on the staff full-time and you could be there year-round. You would have your moments where you realize that you were seeing history. Nights that you have the state of the union address and the president makes his way up Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Capital is lit up at night bright for all the TV cameras, so they have this cinematic view of everything. They’re all there, and all of the pageantry and the pomp of the senators gathering in their chamber and walking over to the house chamber if you can get over there and stand in the rotunda of the room and watch them go through.
It’s fun–it doesn’t get old, you know? The minute you feel like it’s all blasé, it’s probably time to move on and do something else. It should never feel like that, you should always be grateful and excited about where you are.
Nikki Van Noy: Let’s talk about what administrations you were there for, over the course of time.
Jamie Hantman: Sure. When I was in the Senate, Bill Clinton was president. When I interned, it was actually George H. W. Bush. By the time I was a full-time employee, Bill Clinton was president and then during his presidency, I left Capitol Hill and I worked in a law firm doing lobbying work for a bit, and then I joined the administration of George W. Bush.
I went to the Justice Department in August of 2002 and then after DOJ, I went over to the White House for George W. Bush.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay. That’s a lot of history that you were there for. What are some standout moments in your mind?
Jamie Hantman: Let’s see, let me start with DOJ. When I was at the lobbying shop, it was a few blocks from the White House, and I was at the firm on 9/11. I was in that area where people knew they needed to get out because obviously, they were running out of the White House a few blocks away.
Most of my friends were still working either on Capitol Hill or in the administration and so, in those days after 9/11, they were working and responding. That was one of those moments that I felt a little frustrated and helpless. I mean, everyone sort of felt that way, I’m sure, but I wanted to help. I wanted to do something to respond and to be supportive of those who were trying to make sure it never happened again.
It took a little time to let people know I was looking around, and I was able to go to the Justice Department where obviously, the war on terrorism was front and center to the mission at that point. I started shortly before the one-year anniversary of September 11th. I was a brand new staffer there and still getting my bearings, and going down to the courtyard at DOJ to mark those moments–that morning was a somber experience.
I’ll never forget that it was one year after, and it was still very raw. But to be there with the people who had been there that day and that we’d all seen in the news, working on the response, I felt privileged to be able to be there to help support them in the role that I had.
When I was at the White House, the major thing that I did is I was in what’s called the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House. Our job is to liaison with the Congress on behalf of the president. In shorthand term, I was one of the president’s lobbyist and I specifically focused most of my time working with the Senate judiciary committee for the president.
The judiciary committee, as everybody knows who is any type of news junkie, handles all of the judicial nominations for the administration. When I had that job, there were two supreme court vacancies. So, over the course of seven months, I managed the supreme court confirmations, for now, Chief Justice John Roberts and then Associate Justice Samuel Alito. I was our point person to work with the Senate on setting up courtesy visits, accompanying both nominees to their courtesy visits, and working with Senators and their staff, figuring out where the votes were and making sure that everything worked out.
Being able to support both of those nominees and work on getting them through the Senate and get these lifetime appointments, was definitely one of the things that I’m most proud to have been able to be a part of. It was amazing. Every step of the way, when the first vacancy came along, when Sandra Day O’Conner announced that she was retiring, my boss pulled me off all of my other works. They said, “Don’t worry about other committees or other bills or things that are going through, you are focused on this supreme court vacancy.”
That was my life for seven months, nothing but that. That, I would say, would easily be the highlight of my time at the White House.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, talk about having a lasting impact too, in a way that a lot of people just aren’t able to do in their work necessarily.
Jamie Hantman: Yeah, I feel really fortunate that I could be a part of it and both of them are just incredibly decent, kind, people of character. Being able to help each other on a personal level, is something that I was really glad to be able to do.
Nikki Van Noy: Your book is called Heels in the Arena: Living Purple in a Red/Blue Town. Talk to me a little bit about the subtitle in particular?
Jamie Hantman: On one level, I wanted to talk about that issue because to me, one of the things that’s missing today in politics, our government, and political discourse, is civility. I think we see that all the time, with news and Twitter. I was fortunate to work for a boss, Connie Mac, my first boss in DC, who was someone who cared about civility, more than just about anything. He lived it–sometimes it made life painful as his staffer, but you would step back and see that he was making the right decisions by prioritizing civility and working with people on the other side of the aisle and treating them as people who also love their country, but simply have different opinions and ideas about the best way to solve our problems.
As opposed to looking at the people on the other side of the aisle as an enemy. There’s a difference between an adversary and an enemy. All of us love our country, but we just need to work through the best ideas about how to take care of it. He lived that and that was a great way to enter DC politics, to see somebody approach the job that way. I’m not saying that was ingrained in me and I always did it. I fell short plenty of times, and even in the book, people will say “Hey, that’s not the most civil thing to say about so and so,” and it is what it is, but it’s aspirational, and I think a great way to try and conduct yourself if you’re involved in this.
Some people would say “Great, you can be civil, but you know, you’re not going to get very much done.” I think that Connie’s legacy and his accomplishments when he was in the Senate would disprove that. By the time he retired in 2000, he was the number three in Senate republic and leadership, and he was someone that his colleagues on both sides of the aisle would go to regularly for advice. He was a person of extreme influence amongst his colleagues. I think that speaks to his approach being a good one.
I would also say that the reason I had that subtitle for the book is because of my personal life. I talk about that too, because this memoir isn’t just about my work life. It is really about my whole life, including the personal side. During my work at the Justice Department, in a work meeting, I actually met my husband. When I was working for John Ashcroft and George W. Bush, he was working for Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Democrat Chuck Schumer. So, we were in, what you would say, mortal combat professionally, most of the time that I was in government.
But, you know, it didn’t get in the way of a really wonderful relationship and now we’re married and have a daughter. I actually think that being in a bipartisan relationship helped me with my work because I didn’t assume the worst about the people on the other side of the aisle. I was constantly with someone on the other side of the aisle.
When you can engage in real conversations about why he would feel a certain way about some aspects of The Patriot Act and I would feel another way, your mind is more open. You can gain a greater understanding of what someone else might be thinking and why there is cause for disagreement. It helps you to craft better solutions because you can understand where someone is coming from, and it just creates a more civil environment to try and get to “Yes,” to use a trite phrase, because you are not assuming the worst about the person.
They love their country, want what is best, they are working hard, and they care about the same things you care about. You are just trying to work through the details. The partisanship shouldn’t be as heightened as it is these days, and part of that, unfortunately, is because of people watching cable news that feeds their own narrative and gets them worked up. You know the people who are trying to talk about things in a reasonable way and forge consensus doesn’t make for great TV. So, the dialogues get amped up on those sides and it makes it hard to get things done, unfortunately. I am just trying to do a small part in pointing out that there are better ways to approach government and it doesn’t need to be as nasty as a lot of what we see these days.
Nikki Van Noy: I was curious about why you’re writing this book now. Does that feed into it, this sense that we are living in such a divisive political state, that you wanted to discuss this bipartition philosophy and how that can work for us?
Jamie Hantman: I started working on this book a while ago before things got as crazy as they are these days. So, I can’t say that was the seed for it, but I would say that over the last few years, I’ve felt more and more like I was spending my time doing the right thing by writing it. So, it is validating what I decided. When I started working on it, I opened Evernote and just started a running list. At the beginning, it was a much more light-hearted concept.
It was more like Legally Blonde in real life, like all of these crazy things that can happen in a career. Some of the funny things about wardrobe and being a woman in some of these situations, like, “Oh, I will write this up, it will be sort of fun,” and that was the origin of it. I left it on my phone there in Evernote and I would add to it every once in a while when I would remember something else.
Then in 2016, we were living in New York and went to see Hamilton. It was still within its 1st year after it had opened, and that show hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s the concept of speaking your mind and stepping up to the plate. You need to say what you believe, and I just internally started thinking more seriously about things I wanted to say.
As it developed, it turned into more of an opportunity to try and frame public service as something that is noble, and that people who may be really disgusted with what they see in public service and government, that is not a reason to say that it is not for me. That is all the more reason for people who are motivated by the right values to help other people, to help their fellow citizen and mankind, and to go into government service because if people like that don’t go into government, then it’s going to be taken over by people who are motivated by greed, or insecurity, or the desire to feel better about themselves by having “power” for a little while.
It feels more important than ever to encourage, especially younger people, who are thinking about politics, and who might be frustrated about how they can get involved. I am somebody who came from a family of solid loving parents, but they were not politically connected. We’re middle class. We weren’t wealthy, but you work hard and set your mind to something, and you can be there.
Nikki Van Noy: Do you have any advice specifically for women who might be looking at going into politics?
Jamie Hantman: You know, I am fortunate because I am of a generation where it wasn’t breaking glass ceilings. It was probably my mom’s generation that had a harder time with that and really busted down some doors, so that wasn’t a novelty by the time I came along. My mom’s generation was the one that really busted down doors in places like the political arena and Wall Street. That is something I am eternally grateful for.
It was not something that was challenging for me, per se, once I came to Capitol Hill. I feel pretty fortunate, but there were things that I had to notice about myself to try and correct and improve on. One thing, in particular, is projecting confidence.
Sometimes people, when they are generalizing, will point out that men can sometimes be 100% confident with what they are saying and have no earthly idea if what they’re saying is accurate. Women and I know I am stereotyping here, but I am doing it in a way that I think is complementary to my sex, but you know we want to be right. We want to be accurate and paying attention to some of the details can sometimes lead to a little bit of uncertainty in the voice, and in conveying information.
One of the things that I talk about is that on Capitol Hill, it is a confidence game. Senators and members of Congress are running around with thirty things going on, and so when they turn to you and ask you a question about a bill that’s coming up for a vote, or for a piece of advice, they want to feel that the person that is giving advice knows what they are doing, and is 100% confident. It is about the way you deliver and so that was something that I saw. I had a female legislator director that I reported to and I saw that in her within the first couple of weeks. I was like, “Oh that’s important. I need to make the Senator feel like things are taken care of.” That is about the way that you answer and not sounding a little bit hesitant about things.
Nikki Van Noy: What a great lesson to apply to every realm of life, and especially as the mother of a daughter, to be able to pass on.
Jamie Hantman: Yes, I hope I am a good example for her and she’s a firecracker. I think it’s going to be fun to see where she heads.
Nikki Van Noy: Yes, it will be interesting to see where she comes out along the red-blue spectrum in your household.
Jamie Hantman: I think she probably wants to go into science. She would stay away from the whole thing.
Nikki Van Noy: You talk about how you came into Washington with big dreams and high ideals. Were you able to maintain that throughout your time there?
Jamie Hantman: Oh, that is a great question. I have never been faced with a situation of having to work on something that I just thought was absolutely, offensively wrong. I am fortunate in that respect. I think that is sort of a question that a lot of people probably have to grapple with more in this administration, but I have been fortunate that I have been able to work with people that I respect and generally agree with.
Sometimes there may be something that if you were the elected official wouldn’t be your priority, but if it is not a fundamental right and wrong at the moral level, that is part of the job. When you sign up to work for a member of Congress, they’re the member. They are the one with the certificate of election on their walls, and you need to be comfortable in supporting what it is that they’re deciding to do, even if you personally aren’t as excited about it. But all in all, I have been very fortunate in who I have worked for.
Nikki Van Noy: One of the things that I really appreciate about this book is the tone. I am wondering if there are any funny stories that you want to share with listeners to give them a sense of what they’ll find in the book?
Jamie Hantman: Oh my gosh, I’m glad you felt that way because I was trying for that. I think one of the reasons why people write books is that we all have stories that we want to share, and I was trying to find deeper lessons so that I can share some of the fun things that have happened. One of those moments is sort of a Forest Gump, “How did I get here,” type thing when I was at the Justice Department.
I was getting towards the end of my time running legislative affairs at the Justice Department, and Attorney General Ashcroft invited me to be a part of the DOJ officials who were going to attend the G8 Justice Ministers Conference in Paris. I didn’t have any operational responsibilities and I think it was more about him appreciating the good job he thought I had done, and he couldn’t give cash bonuses in government. So, you look for opportunities to show appreciation to your staff and that was one of the things that made him a really, really great leader.
I was invited to accompany him to this Justice Ministers Conference in Paris, and we had a wonderful time with the little cocktail parties to welcome all of them. Then the next day was the actual meeting, and so it is one of these classic scenes that you might see in a James Bond movie where you have this massive room with a whole row of translator booths and one of these huge, huge tables set up like a big square with twenty or thirty seats on each side. All eight different countries have their delegations that come in and then behind the tables were the chairs for these huge meetings, to talk about what the different justice ministers were discussing. So, our entourage came in with Attorney General Ashcroft and took our places. All the other countries are around the table and the conversation’s going on.
There were all sorts of really interesting discussions about how to combat child pornography, and I am sure there was discussion about terrorist financing and different things like that. I was sitting in the back row because I did not have any official responsibilities. I was more of a spectator listening to the conversations, and I look up and the attorney general is leaning back in his chair and motioning for me to get my attention, and motions for me to come over.
I have no idea what this is going to be, and I went on over there and he said, “I need to take a personal comfort break. Why don’t you take my seat?” I said, “Yes, sir.” I sit down and I put my headphones on so I can hear translations, and I’ve got the little nameplate “Attorney General” in front of me. I look up and looked around that room, and realize that the room is in a tizzy because this completely anonymous thirty-something young woman in a bright red dress, is sitting there where the attorney general had been and nobody had briefed their principal on who this person was because there was no reason to.
It was funny to watch the body language because nobody had any earthly idea who this person was sitting there. I managed to not cause any international incidents–I didn’t grab the mike and say anything. It was pretty amusing.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s great. You know, so much of your story seems cinematic. Starting with your childhood home and how invested your parents were in all of this. What were their thoughts about your experience?
Jamie Hantman: They were so proud. Every child loves to be able to make their parents proud. It is primal, it is one of those things that we love to be able to do and they were thrilled about every aspect of it. My mom was a teacher and I started right out of law school. We had this tradition where I would go to her class once a year. She always taught government or US history, and she would have me come in as a guest speaker.
As my career advancement took place, I think she was more and more excited to be able to have me come into her class and talk to the kids about the things that I had done. Once I worked at the White House, one of my favorite things was to be able to share it with my parents. I am so grateful that I had the chance to give them the experience of going to a Marine One arrival, where the helicopter lands and the president comes off. On a good day, he’ll shake people’s hands.
One day I took my parents, it was Mother’s Day, it was a Sunday and he came over. He had the time and was going down the line. He came over to us, he knew I worked for him, and I introduced him to my parents. My mom said, “Mr. President, I am a teacher and I support you, and all of my students support you,” without missing a beat. He said, “Well, you must be an excellent teacher then.”
Nikki Van Noy: What a cool experience for both of you, that’s great.
Jamie Hantman: Yeah, the best thing is the White House photographer snapped a picture the minute he said it and we’re all laughing. I have that and it’s one of my favorite pictures, I put it in the book. I couldn’t help it.