On Capitol Hill, your network is everything. It’s how people find their next job and how legislative work gets done. So when you’re new in town, more than 2,000 miles from home, it helps to have a hyper-connected community ready to welcome you.
That’s been the experience for many Latter-day Saints in Washington, a group that includes chiefs of staff, press secretaries and counsels. Linked by culture, faith, geography and other social ties, encountering this network in a new city is like being lost at Disneyland and spotting someone with a BYU hat. You know they can point you in the right direction.
“I felt so out of my depths when I first got to D.C.,” said Ally Riding, director of communications for Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah. “I didn’t feel like I had a good enough policy understanding, I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing.”
Riding moved to D.C. after graduating from BYU in 2017. It was a group of college friends already living in the area that helped her find housing in “Little Provo,” in the Crystal City neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, known for its high concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her connections also helped her get a foot in the door for her first job on the Hill, working as a press secretary at former Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s office.
It’s something she’s happy to pay forward. “I feel like I’ve gotten where I am because of people who are willing to recommend me or refer me or put their neck out on the line for me, and I’m happy to do the same for others,” Riding said.
In conversations with a dozen current and former congressional staffers and former interns who are Latter-day Saints, they described a cultural network that transcends religion. There’s a camaraderie and a heightened sense of trust that comes from having a shared culture and faith, they said.
For many, it’s the civic-mindedness and patriotism ingrained in the church that brought them to Washington in the first place. While some said there’s a weird pressure for former members of the church to pretend they’re active, others said specifics about peoples’ devotion or Sunday activities don’t come up in a work setting, and having a Utah connection is enough.
The community is also one that finds itself in a period of transition.
The faith connection
As with most D.C. networks built on face time and glad handing, the pandemic hasn’t made it easy to stay connected, and the Latter-day Saint staffers’ calendar of events have been on hold for over a year now. A church institute class held at the Capitol was canceled, as was “Jell-O Wednesdays” hosted by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. The Latter-day Saint Staff Association, which counts about 150 members on and off the Hill, put its brown bag speaker series on hiatus.
The community has also been impacted by a decline in the overall number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Congress, which coincides with former President Donald Trump’s time in office. In 2015, the last Congress before Trump became president, 16 lawmakers were church members. Today, there are only nine, a new low, according to data going back to 1981 from the Brookings Institution.
There isn’t data on congressional staffers by religious affiliation, but the reduced number of Latter-day Saint members of Congress can’t help but reduce the opportunities for wannabe congressional staffers fresh out of Provo, Salt Lake or Logan.
It’s not as if there’s a religious litmus test for hiring. Chiefs of staff are looking for work experience, not whether someone has two years of “Full-time Voluntary Representative for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on a prospective hire’s LinkedIn profile. But the social connections that come from church, plus missions, college, family and friends can make a difference, not unlike in the tight social networks for Catholics in Boston or Southern Baptists in the Bible Belt.
Things have been particularly hard for would-be Democratic staffers, whose church-based social networks tend to be weighed more heavily toward Republicans, who are not up-to-date on the latest Democratic job openings. Today, all nine Latter-day Saint members of Congress are Republican, and all come from three “Book of Mormon Belt” states: Idaho, Utah and Arizona. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., retired this year, and the only other Latter-day Saint Democrat in the House, Rep. Ben McAdams of Utah, was defeated in November.
There here are also unique factors for Latter-day Saints that contribute to the usual churn of staffers on Capitol Hill, staffers explained. For example, because it’s hard to raise a big family in one of America’s most expensive metro areas on most congressional salaries, there are some short-timers. Many Latter-day Saints drawn to Washington in the early 2010s because of Sen. Mitt Romney’s, R-Utah, presidential campaign have also moved on.
But, ambitious Washington insiders are nothing if not resilient. Despite the pandemic and fewer Latter-day Saint members of Congress, staffers are working for lawmakers across the country, including California, Texas, North Dakota and Iowa, and in offices as divergent as Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Jon Ossoff, D-Ga.
The learning curve
Not every Latter-day Saint Republican in office draws from the BYU or Utah talent pool. One former Hill staffer said the longer these lawmakers stay in office, the more their staff eventually grows to include hires outside their early Latter-day Saint political network.
And for someone like Romney, who came to the Senate with connections from outside the Mountain West due to his presidential campaigns and term as Massachusetts governor, his office has a bigger national Rolodex from which to hire.
For staffers in Utah offices who aren’t church members, there’s often a learning curve to understanding the culture and lingo (why, for example, their boss doesn’t drink coffee, but downs multiple Diet Cokes a day), and surprise at how many young Latter-day Saint interns are already married.
Staffers said their shared cultural and faith connections played a meaningful role in bridging political divides.
“At the end of the day even if we are different political parties, we’re all disciples of Jesus Christ,” one Democratic staffer said. “I think at the end of the day that’s the most important moniker that we have.”
The all-Republican Utah delegation gets along despite ideological differences that span the seemingly wide gulf in today’s GOP, something that’s not a given in other states.
“It does seem to me like we do things differently, in a good way,” said Celeste Maloy, counsel at Rep. Chris Stewart’s office. “The Utah delegation is just the right size to allow everyone to coordinate well.”
There are signs the Latter-day Saint community on Capitol Hill is beginning to reemerge from the pandemic’s forced isolation.
The Barlow Center — BYU’s student housing facility in D.C.’s West End neighborhood that serves as a BYU-to-Beltway pipeline through its internship program — welcomed a limited number of students back for the winter 2021 semester under heightened precautions after sending everyone home last year because of the virus. And just this week, Lee’s office held a meeting about bringing back “Flavors of Utah,” a Pioneer Day event celebrating Utah food.
As for “Jell-O Wednesdays,” Lee communications director Lee Lonsberry said in an email, they “will be back up and running ASAP.”
How Latter-day Saint staffers stay connected on Capitol Hill /p>