Hi y’all, Zach Barnes here. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, my father instilled in me a love for American history, and politics just kind of clicked for me while taking AP Government in high school. I am a 2014 graduate of Wofford College with a degree in Government, and I do what I can to catch every Terrier game during college basketball season.
Following graduation, I spent about two years working on Republican political campaigns in Ohio and South Carolina, before making my way to DC about two and a half years ago. I knew that I wanted to continue my education, and GSPM offered the opportunity to earn a master’s degree at night while picking up skills and connections that I could take to work the next day to advance my career.
When I started work on the Hill, I did what we all do – I grabbed coffees with my peers and with any senior staffer willing to sit down with me. I quickly realized that in the eight years prior to 2017, Republican staffers really only had the opportunity to gain Legislative Branch experience. During the Obama Administration, an entire branch of government was kind of closed off from Republican staffers. One connection led to another and I found an opportunity to work in a Cabinet agency. I jumped at the opportunity, if for no other reason than to add a bit of diversity to my government experience. Well, that and the fact that Executive Branch hours and pay are an improvement!
My work now still revolves around Congress. At the moment, I serve as the primary point of contact for about 180 House and Senate offices, in addition to pinch hitting on coverage for state and local elected officials on the Intergovernmental Relations side of our team. While covering those offices requires a firm grasp on a wide swath of HUD’s policies and programs, I’ve had the opportunity to step up and take ownership of HUD’s engagements with the Hill on topics such as carbon monoxide and disaster recovery, which I didn’t even realize HUD did! It’s been incredibly rewarding – at HUD, I’ve worked on policy and been in the room with Secretary Carson as he’s briefed Members of Congress on decisions that have a positive impact on the communities that I have called home.
Working in the Executive Branch has enabled me to specialize in a more narrow policy area than I would be able to on the Hill, where I covered what felt like 50 topics in my House Legislative Assistant portfolio. I think that the experience is complementary – I’ll be able to take the in-depth policy knowledge and the perspective of how Executive Branch agencies actually implement legislation with me should I eventually return to the Hill.
Ultimately, GSPM has given me a significant leg up through each of my career transitions. While on the Hill, I took “Advanced Legislative Procedure” with Professor Martin Gold, which gave me the tools to punch above my weight class, so to speak, during fights over amendments to the few “must-pass” bills the House pushed out in the 115th Congress. Taking “Executive-Legislative Branch Relations” with Professor Fisher in the summer of 2018 forced me to assess the successes and failures of the Congressional outreach efforts of past Presidential Administrations as I was making my transition into an Executive Branch congressional relations shop. While I still had a lot to learn on the job, knowing what to avoid doing during those first few weeks was invaluable, both in terms of saving time, and in building relationships. Courses like “Parties and Elections” with Congressman Martin Frost and “Managing a Congressional Office” with Professor Mark Strand have prepared me for an eventual return to Congress, should my career take that path.
So, knowing all of that, how could I not become a GSPM Ambassador? GSPM provided me with opportunities to learn from some of the best political practitioners in Washington, to get to know some of the brightest young operatives on both sides of the aisle, and gave me the tools that made me better at my job! As a GSPM Ambassador, I’ve been able to share my experience with prospective students, and I’d like to think I’ve done a pretty good job! It seems like each semester, I found myself working on a group project with a student who I’d met for coffee when they were exploring the program just a few months ago. Now that I’ve finished my final semester, I think I’ll miss seeing that transition from prospective to current student the most.
Zach Barnes is a 2019 graduate of the GSPM Legislative Affairs master's program. He is currently an advisor at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.