University of Vermont

Making the House a Home

Alumna Catlin O'Neill has natural political instincts and a relentless work ethic, traits that served her well as deputy director of floor operations for Pelosi during her run as the first female speaker of the House. (Photo: Will Kirk)

When Catlin O’Neill ’99 takes a visitor around the U.S. Capitol it feels more like she’s giving a tour of her own house than the United States House of Representatives. She seems comfortable strolling through its halls saying hello to janitors, security guards, administrative assistants, members of Congress, legislative aides and even the parliamentarian as though they’re family.

O’Neill is clearly at home in her new role as chief of staff for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s congressional office -- even though it was a career in the music industry and documentary filmmaking -- not politics -- that she dreamed of when graduating from UVM. O'Neill experienced some success in these professions in Boston and New York, but her hometown, D.C., kept calling her back.

Maybe it's the bloodline. Although she was too young to remember much about growing up as the granddaughter of Speaker of the House Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., or "Pop-Pop" as she calls him, it seems unlikely that her lineage hasn’t played a role in her unusually high political IQ and the fact that she is a leader in the House her grandfather used to run.

“Catlin O’Neill is very much her grandfather’s granddaughter,” says Congressman Peter Welch (D-Vt.). “She is politically savvy, personally charming and immensely energetic. Some in Washington think Nancy Pelosi runs the Democratic Caucus. Insiders know it’s Catlin. She is a trusted adviser and the go-to staffer for members of Congress across the political spectrum.”

‘Public service in her DNA’

When O’Neill moved into a new office in the Capitol in 2003 with Pelosi, who says O’Neill has "public service in her DNA," she had no recollection of ever being there. That changed one day when she opened the door to a musty old closet and was overcome by memories, triggered by the smells inside, of playing within it as a girl.

“It’s funny, but I grew up in D.C. and I came to the Capitol a bunch, but I was young and didn’t really make the connection that he was so famous because to me he was just my grandfather,” says O’Neill, standing under a massive portrait of "Tip" located in the lobby just outside the House Chamber. “I think people had these illusions that I was going to state dinners and stuff like that, but in retirement they were just grandparents who lived in an apartment where we went for Christmas dinner like any normal family.”

It wasn’t until her grandfather, who served for 34 years as a representative from Massachusetts, including a decade-long run as speaker from 1975 until his retirement in 1987, passed away in 1994 that O’Neill fully understood the magnitude of the role he played in American politics. Just 16 years old at the time, O’Neill was being blown away by the throngs of people that lined the streets to honor her grandfather at a wake in Boston during a blizzard.

“The moment it hit me that he was a really significant figure was at a sundry shop at a hotel near the Massachusetts Statehouse,” recalls O’Neill. “A woman who was standing in line in front of me was buying a paper and said to the woman behind the counter, 'We have lost such a hero and servant to us all.’ Tears were running down her face, and then the other woman starts crying, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is amazing. I can’t believe this!’ I didn’t realize the effect that government could have on people, never mind one representative.”

Living life in two-year cycles

Following graduation from UVM, where she majored in sociology and minored in art, O’Neill worked as an intern at a station in Boston doing radio promotions and was later hired fulltime to work in the dance music department. She eventually moved back home to D.C. and started working for her aunt at a fundraising and event production firm that catered to members of Congress.

“That’s when I first met Nancy Pelosi, when she was still rank-and-file and was looking for someone to do fundraising,” O’Neill recalls. “She was just amazing, really magnetic. Here was this diminutive little thing, but she had so much energy. She was talking to big, burly labor guys, and she had them all eating out of the palm of her hands. She’s tough, she’s serious, she’s got so much integrity, she’s so politically savvy, and she is scary smart.”

Despite her fascination with her future employer, it wasn’t enough to change O’Neill’s mind about going back into the music industry. She moved to New York City and landed a job as a licensing manager at Kinetic Records, where she worked on contracts and was charged with finding out who owned specific songs, how to license them and negotiating ways to put them on compilation albums.

And then Sept. 11 happened.

She heard about the first plane crash on the way to work from a cab driver. "I went to my office in the Meatpacking District and watched it from the roof with four co-workers. We saw the building fall from my office. We piled in my car and drove away through Times Square. It was surreal. I cried every day for three months afterwards.”

O’Neill headed back home to D.C. again and was working at a dead-end job opening a local gym when she got a call from Pelosi’s chief of staff. She wanted O’Neill to help put on a series of events to promote Pelosi becoming the first woman to ascend to a leadership position in the House as Democratic whip. Working closer with Pelosi this time, she gained even more respect for her future boss, but left for New Mexico after her three-month contract ended.

It was in New Mexico, while working on Bill Richardson’s first gubernatorial campaign answering phones, doing field and advance work, and eventually serving as political director, that she got her first taste of working on a campaign. “It took over my life, but it was probably the greatest learning experience of my life, because for the first time I understood how hard I could really work,” says O’Neill. “I had never pushed myself that hard before. You feel like you’ve hit the point of diminishing returns, but you still have to work seven days a week for the next eight months. You wonder where you’re going to find that reserve, but ultimately you do.”

Despite still having “big dreams of going back to school to study film and moving overseas to learn Spanish,” O’Neill was eventually tempted back to D.C. yet again when Pelosi become House Democratic leader and wanted her to travel with her.

“I loved New Mexico, but this was a no-brainer. I thought I would spend a couple years with (Pelosi), and here I am almost ten years later, and I haven’t left yet,” she says with a laugh. “It’s addictive...You get caught in these two-year cycles, and you put things on hold, and then all of a sudden you wake up and you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I never wanted to live in the town I grew up in and work in politics.’ This was not part of my plan. But I’ve been so blessed with opportunities presenting themselves over the years, and I love what I do.”