By Etan Raskas
Tamera Luzzatto is the managing director of Government Relations at The Pew Charitable Trusts. She ensures that Pew’s wide range of nonpartisan policy work at the state, federal, and international levels is effectively and accurately communicated to policymakers.
Ms. Luzzatto served as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief of staff in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2009. Prior to her service with Senator Clinton, Ms. Luzzatto worked for West Virginia Senator John D. Rockefeller IV for nearly 15 years, serving as legislative director and chief of staff.
What inspired you to become involved in politics?
TL: I am one of those people who, [ever] since I was a teenager when the Vietnam War was still occurring, and I was aware of all of the activists who were trying to pass civil rights laws and pursue more equity, more equality for women and people of other races, some match got lit. And ever since then, I feel I became somebody who has looked around to see what, I hope, are wrongs that I want to right and advances that I want to help promote. And that became the creature that I started to want to spend my time [doing].
For lack of a better phrase, I have sometimes said that basically I want to spend my life trying to do good and fight evil. And, of course, in the political world, what one regards as good versus evil varies when it comes to the spectrum of the parties and the ideological spectrum. So, I am aware that what I think of as good policy, someone else might think of as lousy policy. And that just means that you have to, in my case, think about how do you come up with what policy advances or changes or reforms one ascribes to.
You have gone without a resume since 1984. Could you talk a little bit about how you go from having no resume to being the chief of staff in two very significant Senate offices?
TL: The political and government world — and even a good part of the professional world — seems to take reputation and word-of-mouth and who you know and what you know about people, certainly on the job site itself. For example, I was promoted twice in my first Senate job for Senator Rockefeller. He promoted me to first be a manager of people who were at my level — what is called a legislative director — and then to chief of staff to basically manage the entire set of his staff, both in his Washington office as well as in his home state offices. And that was [based on] his perception that I could be trusted, that I would pay close attention and create a structure and a staff that were following through on what he wanted to get done.
Promotions happen that way, period. There are few promotions, unless you are in a global corporation, where you are applying for a promotion. I think probably most promotions come by merit and by just being perceived and observed as deserving of and the right person for that right job.
After that, people evidently just knew enough about me. These days, with modern technology, that may be even more the case — when you think of LinkedIn and how much you end up in print, and the ability to Google somebody. If I really think about it, unless one is looking for very technical skills or very specific job experience, I would imagine there are more and more of us who are getting our jobs because of some other means of learning about that candidate or prospect.
And is that what happened when you transitioned to Senator Clinton’s office?
TL: Yes, because someone who was advising her in the White House told her about me. And she heard enough to go for it. And, in fact, what she went for is that she asked me to work for her for three months and be her transition director.
By the time I was into those three months — when she was still First Lady, because if you think of it, she was elected the first Tuesday of November, and she was First Lady until January 20, 2001 — in the course of that period, when I was helping advise her and helping organizing her first Senate office, we clicked and she proceeded to suggest that I don’t have to exit, that I might just hang around. I think we were both guessing that I might stay as her chief of staff.
I was announced on January 3, 2001, to be exact, because it was her first day as Senator and press releases were put out. I lived in New York so that was a nice press release — to tell the New York media that somebody from New York was her first chief of staff. I think that both of us figured that maybe I’d be out of there by the end of 2001 or so. And she never asked me to leave! So I shut her office down in March of 2009.
How challenging did you find that three-month transition period, especially since most people who handle such transitions are working in the opposite direction: from the Senate to the White House. How difficult was it to manage a transition from the White House to the Senate?
TL: I think that was one of the most demanding things I have ever done in my life. Given that I was working for someone I didn’t know. She was the First Lady — she lived and her office was in the White House, and she was to be Senator of a state of 19 million people. New Yorkers are not known for being undemanding and modest in their expectations, and I was getting to know some her brain trust as well. And she had some pretty big brains and brawn that made up her kitchen cabinet, so to speak.
My recollection is that I just worked like a dog. Starting with working to get to know her and what her platform was for becoming a senator, what she wanted to focus on, what she wanted to work on. I had not set up a brand new senator’s office before. There were some mechanical things — infrastructure, and logistical things to learn about what are the hiring policies were, what kind of budget you got — lots of things that I had never done before. That was definitely baptism by many fires.
Was there anything in particular that surprised you about that initial transition or the few months that followed?
TL: I can only remember pleasant surprises. This says something about Hillary Clinton herself. That is, what she became known for and is still mentioned — that she’s a workhorse, not a show horse. What was glue for me to her and therefore was a pleasant surprise, was the degree to which she was a genuine, complete, total public servant. That she also wanted to do good and fight evil. And that was the very principle that I was to helping organize an office and hire a staff for. And that could not have been more of a relief, in that there was no diva or a celebrity who became intimidating, or anything else.
You mentioned doing good and fighting evil. What would be some specific instances in which you did that for Senator Clinton?
TL: One story I very much remember is that we were in a rush one day, and because the Secret Service needed to be the ones who got her around, there was always a car to take her to the next place. She and I were going to go to the same press dinner on a particular weeknight. And she had to stop off to do a videotaping for something. We are in the car, and I am waiting for her, so she runs into the building and comes back and then we go to this dinner. And she was, and I know is, super organized, so she definitely kept a pad or some version of a record in her pocketbook or briefcase of things she wanted to be sure to tell other people about, make sure to delegate, make sure to assign.
So I am there in the car, and she suddenly says, “Oh Tamera, make sure to tell so-and-so — and she was referring to somebody on our staff — about the meeting I had.” And the meeting was with some organization of autistic children’s parents who were advocates for funding, policies, or programs [that] help people with autism. She didn’t want to forget this particular request that they made, and she wanted to make sure that there was some sort of follow-up. And this is at the end of an incredibly busy day, and she is giving a speech that night at a press dinner.
I, of course, like the dutiful staff, write it down. Then she starts telling me a little bit more about it. And then she suddenly grabs my wrist and she says, “I need to stop because I am going to get too emotional.” She was tearing up, because she was recalling what these New York parents had told her about their lives and their needs and what they were asking of her. And I just said to myself — and I bet this was January of 2001 — I said to myself that I am working for someone who really does want to do good.
Many of us went through 9/11 with her, and that was life-defining for all of us. If you really think about September 11, we discovered first thing in the morning that both World Trade Center towers had collapsed and that many thousands of people were killed. There were almost no survivors, so, in that sense, unlike other natural disasters — tornadoes, and floods and tsunamis — which she herself was familiar with, we really were dealing with the results of that many deaths. It’s the wrong analogy, but talk about baptism by fire. It was the crucible of crucibles of experiences.
And that meant that we got very close, because it was so emotional and so intense and so important for us to deliver.
Image courtesy of http://www.politico.com/.