Finding office, other details won’t be easy for Mike Lee

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 28 2010 11:00 p.m. MST

Mike Lee

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Even though the ceremonial swearing-in of Mike Lee to the U.S. Senate is scheduled for next Wednesday, the U.S. Constitution specifies that the mantle of being Utah's junior senator will pass from Bob Bennett to Lee when the clock strikes 10 a.m. MST on Monday.

At that precise moment, Lee will enter the fray of national politics with myriad factors working in his favor — he's so well-connected, for instance, that U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, two of his friends, will be present for his swearing in.

Not everything will be the ideal for Lee, though. For example, he will join the Senate with only partial staffing and no permanent office — a pair of issues that won't be resolved for several months to come, and which are in fact quite common for a freshman senator.

Building a staff

During fiscal year 2009, Utah's Sens. Bennett and Orrin Hatch each spent an average of $2.39 million on staffing. Because a senator's staffing stipend increases with his service time, Lee will have less to spend. Regardless, Team Lee will still have a pretty chunk of change to spread out over 35-40 staffers.

"It's been an absolutely fascinating experience building a staff from the very beginning, from the ground up," said Spencer Stokes, Lee's chief of staff. "Probably the biggest part of the challenge is there are a lot of qualified and great people who have sent in resumes. From that standpoint, it's been a challenge trying to narrow down and figure out which people would be the best fit for the office."

The heart of Lee's supporting cast is already in place: In addition to the former lobbyist Stokes, he has named his general counsel, David Barlow, his legislative director, Ryan McCoy, state director Dan Hauser and scheduler Ellen James. McCoy and Hauser previously served as Lee's campaign manager and deputy campaign manager, respectively.

The full staff can't be finalized until after Congress convenes and Lee receives his committee assignments. That's because several positions will require staffers with expertise specific to certain committees. Stokes has more than 500 resumes on file; he wants people who share Lee's ideology and expects the hiring process won't end until sometime between March and June.

"It makes for an interesting challenge," Stokes said. "We're blending campaign people with experienced people in Washington, people (whose) senators may or may not have been re-elected or who have worked on (Capitol) Hill."

Lessons learned

After the 2008 election, Rep. Jason Chaffetz built his own congressional staff from scratch. Granted, within Utah's congressional delegation, a House member's staff and budget are roughly one-third of a senator's — Chaffetz, for example, employs 12 full-time staffers and spent $862,117 on staffing during fiscal year 2010. Nevertheless, the lessons learned two years ago by Chaffetz are worth noting as representations of the challenges Stokes faces in building Lee's team.

"It's challenging," said Jennifer Scott, Chaffetz's current district director and former campaign manager. "You've got all these great people who worked on the campaign, and there just aren't enough positions for all the great people you have. For me, the big challenge was saying no to people who really deserved a job. They had really done a lot for us."

The biggest issue that blind-sided Scott was actually technical in nature.

"Setting up a brand-new office is a lot of work," she said. "When you're working for the federal government, there are serious firewalls and (virtual private network) connections. Just getting all of that electronic stuff set up is really quite a job. Setting up a new office is no small thing. We had hoped to be able to get (an office) set up in West Jordan within 90 days; it was May before we actually had the grand opening."

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