Getting a job in North Carolina politics can be a challenge. It’s hard to break in, the landscape can be unstable, and the money isn’t always great. But it is possible, and the rewards can be enormous: Our state’s public servants do a phenomenal job making life better for the people of North Carolina.
So how do you start a career in N.C. politics?
Longleaf Politics spoke with many people currently working in North Carolina politics to get some advice for people looking to break in. We also reviewed the resumes and LinkedIn pages of people at the top of the industry to see how they did it.
Here are a few of the primary tips we divined.
1) Start at the bottom. North Carolina’s political world has a wealth of opportunities to get involved. If you’re still young, start as a college intern. As you get older, you can start as a campaign volunteer, by working in your party’s precinct organization, or by working on hyperlocal campaigns.
2) Network. Like most industries, North Carolina politics relies as much on who you know as what you know. Be involved, get to know people and doors will start to open to you.
In this guide, we will cover:
- Career paths in North Carolina politics
- How to move up the ladder in North Carolina politics
- Entry-level jobs in North Carolina politics
- Political job descriptions
Need an internship first? Here’s our guide to getting an internship in North Carolina politics.
Looking for a job in North Carolina politics? Check out our job board for the latest open positions.
3 career paths in North Carolina politics
There are potentially an unlimited number of ways to get started in North Carolina politics. The political world rewards top performers, and there are always opportunities to jump in.
However, Longleaf Politics found three primary ways that people make it happen.
Over the rest of this guide, you’ll hear directly from some of the people who have lived the N.C. political life. Words in italics come directly from them, though some of our sources did not want us to include their names. Longleaf Politics extends a hearty thanks to:
- Kasey Ginsberg, director of government relations at the Golden LEAF Foundation
- Matt Mercer, political campaign strategist
Path 1: Get involved in a political party
This is the primary way we found people get their foot in the door in North Carolina politics. The Republican and Democratic party organizations are always hungry for young people to help with grassroots campaigning, and there are always elections right around the corner.
Presidential campaigns, gubernatorial campaigns, Senate campaigns
Russell Peck, who ran Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaigns in 2012 and 2016, is a good example. He was the
Kasey Ginsberg: I interned at the N.C. GOP the fall of my sophomore year in college (2006). I made phone calls to recruit volunteers for phone banking, assembled mailings, and did data entry. (As a fun side note: I ended up working with several folks I met back then when I came back to North Carolina in 2012.)
Path 2: Work your way up on campaigns
If you’re looking to work within an actual campaign, chances are you’ll need to start at the local level. City council races, county commission races, school board races — these campaigns always need people who are willing to work hard. Perform well, add value, help win, and you’ll quickly move on to larger campaigns.
Trey Nix, who ran Gov. Roy Cooper’s 2016 campaign, is an example. He managed Aneesh Chopra’s lieutenant governor campaign in Virginia in 2013, and then the re-election for U.S. Sen. Mark Warner in 2014.
There’s another dimension to this. Many high-profile jobs in government go to people who worked on campaigns. Many chief of staffs first served as campaign managers. Hal Weatherman, chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, first ran his campaign. Seth Dearmin, chief of staff for Attorney General Josh Stein, was Stein’s campaign manager.
The same goes for press secretaries, communications directors, and other jobs with both campaign and government analogues.
Matt Mercer: My first job in politics was with the Harold Johnson for Congress campaign in the 8th District in 2010. I had volunteered with the RNC offices and on Charlotte City Council races, but this was the first paid campaign position. If you remember, this was the runoff with Tim D’Annunzio that attracted statewide and national attention. Needless to say, it was quite the introduction to Congressional campaigns.
Path 3: Lateral entry
There’s something of a revolving door between the media and politics. It makes sense — in a lot of cases they’re the only two groups paying attention to what’s going on.
With their skills, television and print news reporters have a leg up on getting communications jobs that are a hallmark of any campaign. They also generally make the connections while in the media that can get them a “lateral entry” to a job in politics at the middle levels rather than the bottom.
Dallas Woodhouse, current executive director of the NCGOP, started as a TV reporter. Ray Martin, who helped lead the N.C. Senate Republican Caucus and is now a political consultant at Differentiator, was a reporter at The News & Observer.
How to move up the ladder in N.C. politics
Moving up the ladder in your career is a little based on luck and a little on skill.
People working in North Carolina politics describe the industry as a meritocracy. If you work hard and perform well, you’ll move up. In most campaigns and political organizations, the bosses are willing to hear out ideas from lower-level staffers — and often even implement them. Young people can rapidly add responsibilities if they show they can handle them.
But there are also some aspects that are outside your control. You’ll only land the chief of staff job if the campaign you manage is successful. And if you’ve been working in a Republican governor’s administration, you’ll be out of a job if a Democrat wins the next election.
However, it’s possible to show promise and still advance even if your candidate loses.
Amanda Eubanks, who most recently ran the finance operation for House candidate Kathy Manning, is an example. She started as campaign manager for an unsuccessful Durham City Council race. She then moved to the Houston Barnes for Congress race in Durham. Barnes ultimately withdrew to support Clay Aiken, but under Eubanks’ leadership, the campaign showed fundraising power. Her career quickly took off, with Eubanks working for U.S. Rep. Alma Adams,
Kasey Ginsberg: Hire good bosses and work as hard as you can for them. Don’t jump immediately or settle for an opportunity just because it’s there. Make sure you nail the fundamentals, whatever it was you were actually hired to do before you start asking for more.
Matt Mercer: First, learn from those around you and ask questions. Curious about the copy of a mailer? Ask about the process. What goes into a commercial shoot? Ask the media consultant. Secondly, I have always tried to make friends with other staff and candidates. Yes, you’re fighting hard – but they are too. They’re often the most familiar faces you see and they are working the long hours just like you are. Making those connections pays off when you’re looking for the next campaign.
Reader: Make connections and maintain them. Do good work even when it seems low-stakes.
Reader: Build credibility. Learn the legislative process. Be able to identify and remember names and details. Excellent writing skills. Presentation skills are a must.
Reader: Work hard. Never think any job is below you. Be willing to pitch in on anything, get noticed by your bosses. Also, do it right – be committed.
Entry-level jobs in North Carolina politics
So what types of jobs should you have your eye on to break in? Here are a few places where people can launch their careers.
- Field Organizer
- Government Affairs Assistant
- Legislative Reporting Analyst
- Public Affairs Coordinator
- Legislative Analyst
- Press Associate
- Legislative Assistant
- Legislative Aide
Political job descriptions
Some of these jobs you may have heard of. Some of them are more behind the scenes. While this is not an exhaustive list, we wanted to give you a window into what common political jobs are actually like.
A campaign manager runs the day-to-day aspects of a campaign. Depending on the size of the campaign, this can involve everything from knocking on doors to managing legions of staffers and volunteers.
Mercer: Being the campaign manager is a lot less glamorous than it sounds, but I will say it’s also some of the most fun you will have – from coordinating the candidate’s time to managing the field program to helping write TV/mail copy, it’s on you to get everything done. The other campaign staff becomes your family and you’ll have lifelong inside jokes and friends.
Many legislative leaders employ policy advisors or policy analysts. The exact title can vary based on seniority, but the idea is to own an area of policy — like education, or health care — and become an expert on it and help guide solutions.
Kasey Ginsberg: You spend a fair amount of time listening to people, asking questions, making sure you understand as many sides as possible, and as much information as you can about a topic before taking action and moving on to the next issue. I had a boss tell me once, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So you spend a lot of time reading, listening, and learning about an issue that could very well be irrelevant by the end of the week.
You’re diving deep into precinct-level numbers and budgets and putting together a winning strategy.
Reader: Email, phone calls, pitches, and doing analysis and providing advice. Some days are very busy and others less so. Much busier in an election year than not.
Reader: Experience, patience and listening. I also believe being humble is never a bad thing.
These jobs are common in Washington and are all about constituent service.
Reader: I handle the member’s constituent correspondence, sorting all incoming mail and drafting responses on legislative issues. I also cover defense and homeland security policy.
In this role, you’re advocating for your industry at all levels of government, staying in touch with both legislators and regulators and managing lobbyists.
Reader: Learn your industry inside and out. I have done it three times in 29 years. Maintain attention to detail. Be able to work with members, legislators and the media.
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Cover image of Gov. Pat McCrory signing a bill via Facebook.