New Year, New Perspectives
pink Granite’s interview with jonathan mathers, chief of staff to representative drew springer
F E B R U A R Y 4 , 2 0 1 9
Before the holiday break I put out an SOS for new perspectives for feature on Pink Granite. Jonathan Mathers has clearly been doing something right - he’s been a Capitol staffer for 14 years and has so much experience to share. I hope you enjoy!
Where do you work, what is your title and what does your job actually entail?
As chief of staff for Rep. Springer, I divide my time between the district office and the Capitol office. Each office serves a different purpose. The district office exists to interact with the member’s constituency, which is no small matter. House 68 covers 22 counties, 76 school districts, and 54 incorporated cities. Rep. Springer likes to point to out that HD 68 is larger than 74 other countries. Thankfully Rep. Springer has an excellent district staff (Sharon Van Beale and Cabie Lamb) that keep it all straight.
For the Capitol office, I select and supervise key office staff, arrange access to the member, manage communications and information flow, design and implement the legislative strategies and tactics of the member, and negotiate with special interest groups, executive branch agencies, and constituents to implement the elected member's agenda.
As a current college professor, previous committee clerk for the House Committee on Higher Education, and Education Policy Analyst in the Senate, I have always had a preference for Education Policy. However, Rep. Springer, who is a tax specialist and member of the House Committee on Ways and Means, has shown me that Tax Law can also be very interesting and be equally significant in its impact on citizens.
How long have you been performing this work?
I almost hate to alert people that I have been working inside the Capitol for nearly 14 years for fear they will ask me to leave.
Where are you from?
I was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania but only because my grandmother was a nurse at one of the local hospitals and it was where my mother grew up. Fun fact, my grandmother was the first person to hold me has a baby, even before my mother, because she was in the delivery room as a "nurse." My mother hates that fact, even more so because my grandmother never missed an opportunity to lord it over my mother. Soon after being born my mother took me to the University of Illinois where she was finishing graduate school.
I grew up moving all around the country until settling in Texas, where I have lived the longest. So in spite of my son, who is a proud native-born Texan and quick to correct me, I tell people I am from Texas.
What did you study in college and where did you attend school?
I once read a study that claimed that boys often know what they want to do professionally by age fourteen. No idea if that is indeed true, but it was right for me. At age sixteen I knew I wanted to work in the legislature. I also wanted to be a teacher. So I attend Illinois State University, a traditional teacher's college, and majored in History and Secondary Education. I also minored in political science and obtained my paralegal certification. I then attend Lehigh University and earned an M.A. in Government.
Political party affiliation?
As a staffer, I tended to stay away from this question. My job is to represent the positions of the elected officials for whom I work, and I have worked for both Democrat and Republican officials. Often I am asked, how could I have worked for both. The answer is that all the elected officials I have worked for have been smart, devoted to their district, and have taken their responsibility to make a better Texas seriously. Rep. Springer is no exception, and I consider myself lucky to be working for him. Truth is there is a lot more that unites Texas Republicans and Texas Democrats than divides them; notwithstanding, what MSNBC or FOX news would lead you to believe.
“Truth is there is a lot more that unites Texas Republicans and Texas Democrats than divides them; notwithstanding, what MSNBC or FOX news would lead you to believe.”
How did you get your start in government work or policy?
I was working with Disney, Citibank, and Time Warner in business operations - nothing to do with Government. Then family circumstances brought me to Austin. I had a Master's in Government and always I wanted to work in the legislature. So, I started out as a Capitol tour guide, did an internship under Speaker Laney and Lt. Governor Dewhurst, which lead to an assistant clerk position for the House Committee on Law Enforcement. While working at the committee I became friends with Michael Kelly, who was at that time the Director of Government Relations at Department of Public Safety. He was very helpful in introducing me to the habits and norms of working under the pink dome. I also owe Michael Kelly a debt of gratitude for introducing me to the Department of Chair of Government at ACC, where I got my first teaching position as a college professor, where I still hold a position today.
Stacey Niccio, the Committee Coordinator for the House, taught me everything I know about Committee procedures and rules. She is still my go to person whenever I find myself not knowing how to handle a complex legislative issue. Stacey must have taught me well, as I caught the attention of Jeremy Mazur, then Chief of Staff of Rep. Bill Callegari, and now the Director of Government Relations at Railroad Commission of Texas.
Jeremy and Chairman Callegari asked me to become their Committee Clerk for Government Reform. Jeremy taught me a lot about the administrative side of running a legislative office and key skills such as, how to write bills or floor amendments on the fly.
My work for the House Committee on Government Reform lead to Candice Woodruff and Chairman Dan Branch when I became a clerk for the House Committee on Higher Education. Candice taught me the importance of running the office like a team and the role of chief of staff is to help everyone else in the office do their job and work to their full potential. They both taught me the importance of relationships both inside and outside the building. I wish I could tell you the number of VIPs those two know.
Once while working in the Higher Education Committee Office, I answered the phone the way I usually do, "Hello this is House Higher Education, my name is Jonathan, how may I help you?" The other person said, "this is George calling for Dan." I explained that "Chairman Branch was not in the office", and was there anything for which I could help. As it happened, Chairman Branch was not in the office, but even so, I was not about to put some random "George" through to the Chairman. After about five minutes of exchanging pleasantries with "George," who was very nice and understanding, I insisted on getting his full name and number and reason for calling, as any good staffer would. He explained that "Dan's got my number." I did not want to get in trouble for failing to take a proper phone message, so I insisted on a full name, phone number, and reason for calling. To my complete embarrassment, it was at this point that I learned I had been addressing the 43rd President of the United States as "George" for the last five minutes. Needless to say, I was more prepared the next time when some random guy named "Ross" with a Dallas area code called the office.
From Chairman Branch I went to Senator Zaffarini to become her policy analyst for Higher Education. She insisted that I call her "Z," as she does with everyone. I was always a little uncomfortable calling a woman of her stature and accomplishment simply as "Z." So, I always called her "Senator" upon our first greeting of the day out of respect and then called her Z the rest of the day. I don't know if she ever noticed. I was already very detailed oriented and a solid writer but "Z" took me the next level. I would encourage any young and inexperienced staffer to work two sessions with "Z." You will never work harder but you will never learn more and you will be more than prepared for your next job in the Capitol.
“I would encourage any young and inexperienced staffer to work two sessions with "Z." You will never work harder but you will never learn more and you will be more than prepared for your next job in the Capitol.”
I now work for Rep. Drew Springer. I was not sure after working for such great members like Rep. Callegari, Rep. Branch, and Sen. Zaffarini that going to work for a sophomore member from rural North Texas was a good career move. However, Rep. Springer is proving to be one of the greats. He is very skilled at the politics, much more so than anyone for whom I have worked. Yet, he does not let politics endanger good policy. He is a man of great integrity and fiercely represents his district. He also loves his family and friends probably more than he would want you to know. You get a glimpse of this by watching his personal privilege speech from the House Floor on May 11, 2017.
When did you know you wanted to work at the capitol?
I knew in high school I wanted to work for the legislature, which I guess makes me kind of a geek - so be it. I really enjoy my work and feel privileged to work alongside so many other smart people trying to make a Texas the best state in the union.
What do you find to be essential skill sets/personality traits for being a good staffer?
I like Lucia Giovannini's article "the10 things you can do that don't require talent but will serve you well." I will not list all ten but I will hit my four favorites. "Be on time," if you are asked to open the office at 7:30 AM then don't open the office at 8 AM. You should have a good "work ethic." If you don't want to work hard, then a legislative office is not your place. One should have "passion" for the work. You have a chance to improve the lives of 28 million citizens if that doesn't' move you, then I do not know what will. Lastly, be coachable. You will be working around people who are smarter and wiser than you. One of the things I like most about my job is that it is never boring, I am always learning new things.
“If you don't want to work hard, then a legislative office is not your place.”
What skills do you think make someone an effective lobbyist?
Obviously, any good lobbyist knows the process, can build relationships and have a tactical plan. The best lobbyists are able to somehow find the right solution for the right problem.
Sometimes the government sees a problem and then crafts a solution that doesn’t solve the problem. Sometimes bad advice and data cloud the picture, or sometimes symptoms seem to be the problem. Sometimes the intentions of government are good, but the solutions don’t do what they are supposed to do. The best lobbyists are able to somehow find the right solution for the right problem and then wrap that solution into a legislative package that is agreeable to elected officials.
“Start out with an internship and treat it like a full-time job.”
I’m a young person and I want to be a Capitol staffer? Where do I start?
You won’t find these job posted publicly very often. Individuals often earn these positions by building a good reputation and an extensive professional network. Members seek recommendations from their colleagues and their colleagues’ chiefs of staff. Politicians need people they can trust to look out for their best interests and to complete work with excellence. Start out with an internship and treat it like a full-time job. Rest assured if you do well at your internship, people will take notice. I once had an intern work for me less than a month, whose work was noticed by others and was offered a paid position by another office. That works the other way as well, if you perform poorly that too is noticed.
Thanks again to Jonathan for providing our first male perspective on Pink Granite. I look forward to many more! Learn more about Jonathan by following him on Twitter here.