SBT Interview with Donnelly’s District Director

(from the South Bend Tribune)

Hodge Patel, district director for U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly’s office in South Bend, got his start in politics as an intern and believes in what the politicians he works for are doing for others. He seems proud of the fact that he can help people on a small scale with their individual problems, though large projects also are rewarding for him. He recently talked with Tribune correspondent Jennifer Ochstein, via e-mail, about his life in politics.

How long have you worked for district director for U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly?

I have been working for Congressman Donnelly as his district director since Jan. 4, 2007. However, I have known Donnelly professionally through his work in the community for a number of years.

How did you become interested in working in his South Bend office?

I have worked on the congressional level in the South Bend area for 12 years now, including with former Congressman Tim Roemer and Sen. Evan Bayh. My first experience in a congressional office dates back to when I interned for a congressman while attending Notre Dame. Working in a congressional office in South Bend has afforded me the opportunity to work directly with individuals, businesses, community organizations and public officials in a meaningful way. As an aide to the congressman, I am able to be directly involved in working through problems that constituents may be experiencing, often through no fault of their own. This is often done through accessing information through federal agencies with the goal of resolving a matter favorably in certain situations. It is the small victories of helping others that makes the job rewarding. This is not to say that the large successes don’t mean as much, because they, too, are just as gratifying.What exactly does a district director for a congressman do?

The district director manages the staff and offices within the 12 counties that Congressman Donnelly represents. In addition, I attend meetings that Congressman Donnelly is unable to attend because he is scheduled for votes in Washington. When he is home in the district, which is every weekend, I may travel with him to meetings or work on special projects that are of particular interest within the district to Congressman Donnelly.

What kind of education is necessary to do what you do?

I have a degree in economics and political science from Notre Dame. I think that education has been a foundation in terms of me being able to contribute in various ways to this organization. The position is a constant challenge and it involves being educated on a large cross section of subjects from energy, Medicare, education, the economy, as well as past and current events.

What is a typical day like for you?

I don’t think I can say that any day is a typical day. My work schedule is irregular and really depends on what meetings and events are scheduled and in which cities and towns the meetings are taking place. The morning often can start out with working breakfast meetings, meetings in the congressional office with organizations that want to make the congressman aware of issues that are of particular interest to them, following up with individuals who may have met with the congressman and are seeking assistance from him, attending meetings with elected officials, sharing with groups the congressman’s stance on particular issues that they are interested in, attending evening events where awards are being presented, people are being honored, or small business owners are gathering to discuss the challenges that they are facing in terms of hiring a qualified work force. So as you can see, there are many topics discussed and worked on through the course of the day. Many of these meetings also take place when the congressman is back in the district.

What kinds of skills are helpful to do your job?

The essential skills are listening, communicating and writing. In addition, it is just as important to follow up on requests that are made of the congressman. It also helps to be surrounded by talented individuals, Congressman Donnelly’s staff, who work well together in terms of serving constituents.

What is most challenging about what you do?

I think the pace of the work is probably the most challenging part of the job because things are so fluid. You have to be able to adapt and have a team that adapts well to changes. I also find it to be a challenge when you have to share bad news with people when you were hoping to give a favorable reply to them, or when you are dealing with a tragedy, such as the loss of a military service member.

Are there any misconceptions people have about your job?

I think with any job there are always misconceptions, and it is more about educating others on what you can and cannot legally do. In addition, constituents often think that they do not have a voice in government, or that government cannot help them with their specific needs or problems. Many people find this to not be the case once they contact Congressman Donnelly’s office. One final area that comes to mind is that people think that the job is 9 to 5 from Monday through Friday. It is not unusual to work early mornings and late nights, weekends and holidays, as well. The position requires a degree of flexibility.

Are there job opportunities available for people in politics in this area — how does one prepare for a job in politics or public service?

I would encourage people to be involved in the community from an early age, and I believe that it is never too late to get started. My volunteer work in the community and internships made positions like the one that I currently hold possible. I think voting and being involved are key aspects that have prepared me in terms of getting my foot in the door. Networking is an essential part of public service, and it is a good way to seek out a job in public service.

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