Name: Jessica Lewis
Hometown: Yellow Springs, Ohio
Position: Staff director, Senate Foreign Relations Democrats
Alma mater: Haverford College, Johns Hopkins University, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
Washington Examiner: How did you get to the Hill?
Lewis: I started in 2003. I had just finished my master's at the Kennedy School, and I came down for an informational interview. And the night before the informational interview, they called me and said, "Actually, you're going to be meeting with the member." So, I worked for then-Congressman [Robert] Menendez, who was the ranking member on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee in the House, and I was the staff director on the Democratic side. ... I'm a big believer, by the way, in informational interviews as a result of this.
Washington Examiner: You were an elementary school teacher before going to graduate school and the Hill. How did you make that transition?
Lewis: I got a master's in teaching as well from Johns Hopkins and then eventually transitioned to kind of doing Latin American education, training, and technology work, which is what I was doing before I went up to grad school at the Kennedy School and then came down to the Menendez job.
Washington Examiner: Did the teaching experience influence your congressional work?
Lewis: It really shaped who I am today, it shaped how I operate. I like to joke that it's good practice for working in Congress. But the truth is, I make that as a joke, but the reality is that the skill set that I learned there, I dealt with the public all of the time. Every day, I was thinking about how to solve big problems, for little people, but they're really big problems! And a lot of the analytical thinking that you have to do to be a good teacher, to understand what a child has to be able to do to learn whatever thing you're trying to teach them, was an incredible foundation. I use stuff literally every day that I learned as a teacher. Also, I would say that is the hardest job there is. It's harder than the job I have now, it's harder than the job I had in [former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid's] office.
Washington Examiner: What was a day in the life of a Foreign Affairs subcommittee staff director at that time?
Lewis: I did all of his Latin American work, but I [also] did all of his foreign policy work, so I did the full committee work as well. But as the staff director of the subcommittee, you help set up hearings, you work on getting witnesses, you write all of his statements, do all of the legislation related to Latin America. And it was a very interesting time. I came in in 2003, which was just after the start of the Iraq war. That was the main foreign policy agenda item. It was very close to 9/11. One of the great things I got to do in that job was, Menendez was a conferee on the original 9/11 bill, the one that created the [office of] the director of national intelligence and did a lot of stuff in the foreign policy space. And so I was one of the staff who got to help negotiate that conference. The foreign policy piece, not the intel piece. But it was absolutely, for me, a foundational experience in learning about the Hill.
Washington Examiner: How did you balance policy work with managing the staff?
Lewis: Can I tell my staff director? In the House, the majority gets two-to-three staff on a subcommittee, and the minority gets one person. But the people who run the subcommittee on both sides both have the staff director title. So, I used to joke that I told myself what to do a lot. That's just how the House operates.
Washington Examiner: How did you move to the Senate?
Lewis: Menendez got appointed a senator and came over, and I came over with him, and he came over here in an off-year, when [Jon] Corzine left to become governor; it was an off-year race. So, I came over with him, which was great because then I got the Senate personal office experience as well. One of the first things was the Dubai ports deal ... and obviously got to know New Jersey as a state … and then the next year, Menendez came onto [the Senate Foreign Relations Committee] and was a junior member of this committee so I was actually what they call a PRM, the personal representative of the member to the Foreign Relations Committee. And then Reid's [office] called and the person who was handling the foreign policy and homeland security portfolio for Reid was leaving and asked if I'd be interested in that job [in 2007]. ... I was with Reid for nine years.
Washington Examiner: You've been in both chambers and worked in the majority and the minority. How does the job of being a foreign policy adviser change with political circumstances?
Lewis: The issues that I've been dealing with since 2003, in the broadest sense, I'm dealing with the same set of issues. It changes. What's going on in the world in 2003 is not the same as what's going on in 2017. But broadly, the role you play in dealing with it, and the levers you have the ability to push and the lens you put on it changes in all of these jobs, but the fundamentals are the same. And you're always working across the aisle, you're always having to take into account politics, policy and procedure. What those are and which weighs in the most changes and varies. And then, obviously, different members have different views and so you're moving in that way, too.
There are different levers that you use when it's [your party's president] versus when it's the opposite party's president. I think there are different ways to influence depending on where you sit in that scenario. I think everybody always manages their differences between themselves and the president of their own party. I also think it depends on how much foreign policy is at the front of the news, right? So, I remember that period when Obamacare was passing, that was at the front of the news, so we were working on other things in subtler ways. And then, I remember a period in 2006 and 2007 when the Iraq war was driving everything.
Washington Examiner: What's the environment like now in terms of your ability to work with Republicans with the White House, since President Trump took office?
Lewis: Those are two different questions. We happen to be on a committee that has a long history of bipartisanship and [Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and Ranking Member Ben Cardin] have a long history of working together. So, I think we do a ton with the Republicans this year and have been able to accomplish a lot. Both in the stuff that makes the news, like the Russia sanctions bill ... and then, on smaller things that we work on on a daily basis. So, I think that there is a lot of space for Republicans and Democrats to work together on a whole range of issues.
Washington Examiner: Is the trend of the presidency acquiring greater power on foreign policy at the expense of Congress continuing, slowing, or being rolled back in some way?
Lewis: I don't know. Trump is a unique president, and the foreign policy stuff out there is complicated for him ... sometimes that's determined for a president, also, by the hand they're dealt. 9/11 happened for George Bush; none of us would have known that, right, at this point in the year.
Washington Examiner: What do you do in your free time, when you're not thinking about foreign policy or national security?
Lewis: One of the things that I really have tried to figure out is how to be a mother and do these kinds of jobs and have time with my child in a real way. And that's a challenge for everybody, but I've been lucky that I think I‘ve been able to manage that. I have wonderful bosses, and I've been able to work with wonderful teams of people ... I don't know that I have any free time. Technically, I think the answer is I go out with friends, and I exercise, but really mostly what I do is I spend time with my family.