Here in Washington, the stereotypical image of a Capitol Hill congressional staffer is that of a relatively young, sharply dressed man or woman who is a hyper-ambitious workaholic, obsessed with tactics – "good politics" instead of good policy – and who is as attached to his sense of his own power and importance as he is to the Blackberry device he constantly fiddles with.
Jon Samuels, who until very recently worked as an aide to Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Illinois), shatters that stereotype. Yes, he always seems to have his Blackberry within reach. But that only ended up making him a quicker responder to our constant voicemails and emails.
Along with others who have worked for peace, social justice and human rights in Colombia and Latin America, we have leaned on Jon Samuels and his boss for so much over the past several years. Though he is extremely busy – and became more so as Ms. Schakowsky climbed the ranks of the Democratic leadership (she is one of nine "chief deputy whips") – Jon always found time for us, and was always happy to help.
He visited Colombia on several occasions, traveling outside the Bogotá bubble and listening to independent voices. He has hosted events and meetings with countless visitors from Colombia – threatened human-rights defenders, labor leaders, Afro-Colombian and indigenous community leaders, experts and reformist politicians – and always asked them what he and his boss could do to help. Many of them have come to count on Jon and Ms. Schakowsky as some of the principal and most reliable advocates of human rights in the entire U.S. Congress.
Without ever complaining about how busy he was, Jon has responded faithfully to urgent actions, requests to call the State Department or Colombian embassy in response to immediate threats, or simply inquiries about aspects of U.S. policy. He often took the initiative himself, coming to us and others with concerns based on something he read in the press or heard from constituents. With his help, Ms. Schakowsky co-sponsored legislation, signed numerous letters, and gave great speeches in support of a more humane, more effective U.S. policy toward Colombia and the Americas.
At an event I attended recently, Rep. Schakowsky made a distinction between members of Congress who are there "to do something" as opposed to those who are there "just to be something." Jon Samuels is there to do something. He comes from an activist background, as Rep. Schakowsky noted in the "Tribute to Jon Samuels" that she added to Tuesday’s Congressional Record.
In the early fall of 1997, I literally recruited Jon Samuels off the street in my home town of Evanston, Illinois. He and I were walking together in a student-led march against violence that started at the High School and ended in downtown Evanston, a few blocks from my campaign office. He told me that he had recently graduated from college and talked about the work he was doing with the youth in our community. I learned he was experienced outdoors man and led young people on challenging wilderness experiences.
By the time we reached our destination, I knew that I had to have Jon on my team. I clung to him during the speeches and then took him directly to my office to sign him up as an organizer in the Campaign School I was creating. The Campaign School was to be made up of seventeen young people from around the country who wanted to learn to become political professionals by working the Congressional campaign of a progressive Democratic woman. In exchange for providing excellent training, they would work for a stipend and organize a sufficient number of volunteers and identify enough voters that would elect me to Congress.
The plan worked, in large part, because Jon Samuels was a star. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do in that first campaign, and there was no way I could go to Washington without him.
I know the above just read like an obituary – but in fact, the news is good. Jon Samuels just got a big promotion: he’s moving to an office in the Capitol Building, where he’ll be carrying out the House Democrats’ legislative strategy as an aide to Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-South Carolina).
Having Jon Samuels at the center of the House leadership is great news for those of us who hope to see U.S. policy toward Colombia and the Americas change for the better in the 110th Congress. But it is good news for everyone, really, to see principled and dependable people like Jon – not hacks obsessed with personal ambition and political gamesmanship – helping to run things in the Congress.
We thank Jon for all his work over the past eight years, and wish him lots of success in his new job. And we hope to keep nagging him for help.