Working for noted moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) for more than a decade, Capitol Hill staff attorney Matt Walker quickly learned there are no shortcuts to finding the political middle ground.
In 2009, Walker flew to Maine to meet with Richard Pfeffer, a potato processing plant owner who explained why the cap on government-backed small business loans was too low to help companies like his. Walker, 39, pitched to Snowe the critical need to raise loan limits, and she agreed.
So Walker convinced Pfeffer to testify at a hearing in Maine to make a record for the need for change. He negotiated Snowe's proposed legislation with Democratic counterparts, sometimes late into the night. It became law a year later, and has helped Small Business Administration lending reach record levels since then, he said.
Working from the ground up isn't new to Walker, an attorney for Republicans on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee since 2003, and now the chief counsel. He was raised in Sorrento, Maine, a town so small it has no stoplights or grocery store. His mother works as a Wal-Mart door greeter in a nearby town, and his stepfather was a janitor -- the best jobs they had, he says.
Walker started in Snowe's office as a college intern, after winning a contest based on his grades and recommendations from professors.
Over the years, she's taught him that preparation and hard work are required for building bipartisan consensus. "To be able to truly do so, and to get to a yes, that's a really difficult skill set," Walker said. "She was a master at that, and one of the best teachers you could ever have."
He comes from a family of servicemen. He joined the Army National Guard at age 17, shooting M-16s on the weekend while his high school friends goofed off. He won the contest his junior year as a political science major, and got to choose which legislator to work for. He picked then-Rep. Snowe, and caught the political bug in DC.
Walker later went to work solving constituent problems in Snowe's Maine offices, where he learned a couple Washington tricks. "You have to call and call and be annoying," he said. "Get people's names and numbers, and make them know you're going to hold them accountable."
He decided to go to the University of Maine School of Law, not knowing what he wanted to do next. Unlike his peers, Walker kept working. He juggled law school, weekends with the Army National Guard and working up to 30 hours a week in Snowe's office.
Walker took a corporate litigator position at the Maine-based firm Pierce Atwood when he graduated in 2001, but missed the buzz of politics. When Snowe heard that, she offered him a job back in Washington right away.
"His thoughtful counsel and sage advice has helped me develop and introduce legislation on a host of small business matters, from increased loan limits to bolster Small Business Administration lending, to innovative ways to foster entrepreneurship among America's veteran community," Snowe said in a written statement.
Walker's Army National Guard duties took him to Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, where he served as U.S. liaison to South Korean and Polish military contingents, but he never lost contact with Snowe. "I was so touched when Matt had an American flag fly over Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan for me, and when he sent it to me, I had it framed and displayed in my front office," Snowe said.
Walker retired from the Army National Guard in 2011. And when Snowe made a surprise announcement this month that she would be resigning from Congress, Walker immediately called his wife in Virginia to let her know some changes might be in store for their family, which includes twins, a son and daughter born last year.
Walker said he was almost immediately called by several people offering job possibilities both in the private sector and on the Hill such as business association groups and chiefs of staff for senators in the hours after Snowe's announcement.
By the next day, some of those chiefs of staff said there was a place for him in their office, Walker said. Walker is happy to stay where he is for now, but says he needs to do some soul searching about his career.
Walker said there are opportunities for attorneys leaving the Hill, and for him, mostly from trade groups and lobbying firms. He is confident that his experience will land him another job. "The challenge is finding a job I can really love," Walker said.
Working for the committee has meant working with both Democrats and Republicans. As Snowe retires, citing a growing partisanship divide, Walker feels his strength is the ability to find that elusive middle ground.
"That's going to be more important than ever," Walker said.
Know of a Hill attorney who would be interesting to read about? Send suggestions to Todd Ruger at email@example.com.