The First Time I Cried At Work (and Why You Should Vote for Val Hoyle)

A few years ago, I worked for Val Hoyle when she was House Majority Leader. She brought me onto her team mid-legislative session to be her Legislative Assistant. It was a low-ranking position, but still a big deal to me. The Majority Leader is a powerful, important figure in the Capitol, and Val had a reputation for her political savvy. I was a recent college grad who was obsessed with the West Wing. This was a cool opportunity. 

During the session, Val had a bill before the House Health Care Committee, and some stakeholders had negotiated a new amendment. We hoped that with the amendment, the bill could pass out of committee. In Val's office, I was the point person on the bill because it was one of her personal bills (rather than a caucus priority bill, which were handled by the Legislative Directors, Lindsay Baker and Kristen Pendergrass). 

Before the hearing started, I walked with Val down to the hearing room. I was excited. You feel kind of important when you’re walking through the halls of the Capitol next to the Majority Leader, like a minor-league Aaron Sorkin character. All the lobbyists and legislators say "hi" and want to chat with her; it's the staffer's job to run interference and keep things on schedule. This was an especially challenging task with Val -- but I wasn't bad at it.

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When Val’s bill came up, she walked to the center of the room, sat down at the table, and read her remarks to a full dais of legislators, while rows of lobbyists and state employees watched. She mentioned that the “dash [something]” amendments would remedy the previous concerns and urged they be adopted. Usually, committee members would pull up the text of the amendments on a laptop to read and discuss them. This time, none of the members could find them. They weren't in the system.

Why?

Because I never sent the amendments to the committee administrator. More simply: I screwed up.

I had no idea that you had to actually submit amendments to the committee. I just assumed that once an amendment was drafted by Legislative Counsel, the committee would automatically get a copy. This was a stupid assumption. The meeting was delayed for a few endless, agonizing minutes as we scrambled to get the committee members a copy of the amendments. I felt like a complete idiot. This was 100% my fault and I knew it.

I think the most relieved I’ve ever been was the moment Kristen Pendergrass strode into the committee room with hard copies of the amendment for all the representatives. She should have been wearing a cape.

I don’t remember what happened with the bill, but I definitely remember how I felt. Embarrassed and incompetent, like I didn’t deserve the job. Like an intern who was promoted too early and blew his chance. After the incident was over, I took a walk outside and cried. That was probably the low water mark of my self-esteem.

A couple months later, the session was almost over. Legislative business had slowed down. There wasn't much to do. The House was probably waiting for the Senate to do something, as is customary.

In the morning, Val had asked the staff’s opinion on some political question. Everyone on her staff casually weighed in and had a short conversation. I said nothing. Eventually, Val turned to me and directly asked me what I thought. I kind of shrugged and said something like, “I think they know more than I do.” They, in this case, was Val’s Chief of Staff, Legislative Directors, and Communications Director. I was right about them knowing more than I did.

Val had a break in her schedule and she wanted to go buy Settlers of Catan. In the waning days of session, it’s not unusual for members and staff to be in the Capitol until late at night, waiting for a committee hearing to end or for a late floor session to begin. She wanted to have a game going in her office so people didn't completely lose their minds.

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I walked with her to the game store. When we got there, she asked me which version of Settlers I thought she should get. Instead of answering, I asked, “Which one do you like better?” She kind of ignored it and eventually picked one and we headed back.

On the way back to the office, when we were stopped at a crosswalk, she called me out for my over-the-top deference. “Why didn’t you answer me when I asked you what you thought this morning?” I told her that she had people way smarter and more experienced than me on her staff. She said, “Yeah, I do have smart people on my staff, and I asked you for your opinion.”

I paused. I really didn’t think she had noticed — in fact my whole goal was to try to go unnoticed. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing and look stupid, so I took no risks and said nothing. That was literally my office survival strategy — a product of my low self-confidence. 

Then she said something like, “I hired you for a reason. I want you to contribute.” 

I will never forget the walk back from the board game store. I was embarrassed, but I also felt validated. Like my mistakes in the job didn't erase my intelligence or ability to be useful. Little moments like that build on each other, and pretty soon self-esteem gets rehabilitated. 

Watching Val run for Labor Commissioner reminds me of that story. 

If you care about good policymaking — defending civil rights, protecting working people, building consensus instead of breathing fire — Val is the obvious choice. The Bureau of Labor and Industries is in charge enforcing Oregon's civil rights laws, and it should be led by someone unapologetically in favor of equal rights. Val won't allow discrimination, and I hope that's as important to you as it is to me. She's also supported by business and labor groups, and she's been endorsed by almost all of the major newspapers across the state. You can read about all that stuff in the voters' pamphlet.

But some things can't be gleaned from the voters' pamphlet and TV ads. Val has my vote because she's qualified and experienced and right on the issues — but she also has my vote because she's the type of person that genuinely cares about what the lowest-ranking person on her staff thinks. That should be a necessary qualification for anyone who wants to be Labor Commissioner.