Alumni aiding the powerful and powerless in the nation’s capital
- By Jon reidel
DEPARTMENTS / ALUMNI PROFILES
Chief of staff for House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi
When Catlin O’Neill 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—all greeted 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 Vermont Rep. Peter Welch “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.”
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 from a cab driver on the way to work. "I went to my office in the Meatpacking District and watched it from the roof with four co-workers,” O’Neill remembers. “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 her 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.”
ANNALEE ASH ’76
Advocate for D.C. rights to representation
Annalee Ash is the first to admit that her arrest last year near the U.S. Capitol in protest of Washington, D.C.’s lack of Congressional representation was out of character for the self-described “pearl-wearing home economics major” from UVM. But the moment was cathartic for the alumna who works tirelessly to help the capital district’s most vulnerable children.
“I was never political in college and have never done anything like this before,” says Ash. “But my life was changing when I was arrested for civil disobedience on Constitution Avenue with my extraordinary ‘boss,’ Diane Bernstein,” who is considered the matriarch of children in D.C. “I was handcuffed, put in the paddy wagon, had my mug shot taken, finger-printed, and jailed. But fighting for the rights of children in D.C., who don’t have the same rights as other children in this country, because they don’t have representation was the right thing to do.”
Having spent the previous thirty-four years catering to the rich and famous through her work in the design and hospitality industries, Ash was seeking a more fulfilling line of work and accepted a job offer from Bernstein, founder of the Diane & Norman Bernstein Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping impoverished children and their families by supporting like-minded nonprofits. As assistant to Bernstein, Ash has adeptly leveraged key contacts from past employers like The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, where she had worked as lead concierge and where she got a taste of charity work with the Ritz-Carlton Community Footprints Program.
Ash’s volunteer work with DC Vote http://dcvote.org/, a nonprofit dedicated to securing full voting representation in Congress, is integrally related to her efforts at the Bernstein Foundation and D.C. Action for Children, a nonprofit started twenty years ago by Bernstein to educate children and parents living in poverty. Because Washington, D.C., doesn’t have a member in the U.S. House or Senate, and must send its local budget and any laws to Congress for approval, Ash says the district’s 600,000 residents, especially its young people, are at a major disadvantage.
“The excuse used is usually that ‘it's in the Constitution,’ but so was the right to vote for women and African-Americans. Their rights were amended,” says Ash, winner of UVM’s Outstanding Young Alumni award in 1984. “I didn’t truly know how ‘taxation without representation’ affected me until I was involved in philanthropy in D.C. We have no voice in our own healthcare, housing, taxes, real estate, children’s health, and well-being, education, and any other issues that affect our lives. It is absolutely unacceptable on so many levels.”
A drive around D.C. with Ash is a lesson in wealth disparity and illustrative of her career path. Her tour starts with a drive around Georgetown and through posh Foxhall Estates before passing by Sidwell Friends School where presidents Roosevelt, Nixon, Clinton, and Obama have sent their children. It continues past lavish embassies and multi-million dollar homes owned by CEOs and heads of states, including an elegant colonial occupied on occasion by Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The landscape soon changes, however, as Ash drives east over the Anacostia River into D.C.’s Promise Neighborhood, where less fortunate sons and daughters play in a recreation area built on a toxic trash-burning dump in a community of 6,000 residents with the highest rates of teen pregnancy, single mother homes, HIV/AIDS and juvenile crime in the city.
Ash spends time here at places like Bright Beginnings, which provides early care and education to homeless infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers, making sure the Bernstein Foundation’s money is properly preparing them for kindergarten and helping their parents become self-sufficient by offering workplace counseling, job assistance, education, and housing assistance.
It’s neighborhoods like these where Ash has found new purpose and hopes to spend the remainder of her career helping its residents.
“When I was working at the Ritz-Carlton and was asked what kind of work I wanted to pursue in the future, I said ‘philanthropy,’ says Ash. “Two days later I had the job offer for my current position. A friend suggested years ago that I should seek a vocation where I got paid to do what I loved most. That dream has become reality.”
ED PAGANO ’85
White House deputy director of legislative affairs
Ed Pagano was perfectly happy working as chief of staff for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy. Then the phone rang, and the only employer capable of luring him away from the longtime legislator from Vermont was calling.
“When the President of the United States asks you to work for him, you answer the call,” says Pagano, who was named President Obama’s deputy director of legislative affairs in March. “It was very hard to leave Leahy’s office because he’s a wonderful man and a loyal friend. I’ve been blessed to have worked for two men of integrity."
With only a few months under his belt at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Pagano says he’s still learning the ropes, but has been “amazed at how much information the White House has to deal with on a given day.” His experience with Leahy, the second most senior member in the senate, has been helpful in working with all branches of government.
“My work focuses on the senate, and I’ve been able to blend my previous experience with my current duties,” says Pagano. “It’s a true privilege and an honor to come to the White House every day and work for President Obama.”
Pagano’s path to the White House, or even politics in general, wasn't clear cut when he was at UVM. He wasn't a political science major or active in political groups on campus. He majored in English and played four years of basketball. It was on a recruiting trip to campus when he “fell in love with the place and the view of Camel's Hump from Harris-Millis,” he says. “I had a great four years at UVM. It really opened up new worlds for me that I otherwise wouldn’t have discovered.”
Pagano, who played power forward for the Catamounts, has yet to utilize his basketball skills against Obama, who is known for enjoying an occasional lunchtime game among staffers. “I’m hoping to get to play with him sometime. That would be a lot of fun.”
After graduation, Pagano moved to New York and worked as a paralegal while earning his law degree from Fordham University at night. After an unfulfilling stint at a law firm in D.C., Pagano found his calling as a field director for the Clinton-Gore campaign at the same time Leahy was running for the U.S. Senate. One year later, Pagano joined Leahy's office as an attorney, quickly moving up the ranks until taking over as chief of staff in 2005.
In addition to managing Leahy’s Washington and Vermont offices, Pagano oversaw his boss’s work on the senate Judiciary, Agriculture and Appropriations committees and advised on the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act, the first major reform of the patent system in sixty years. He also played a key role in the hearings and confirmations of Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. More recently, Pagano helped the senator secure disaster relief and renovation funds after Tropical Storm Irene ravaged Vermont.
“Ed is as exemplary and honest and modest a public servant as any I have known,” Leahy said at the time of the announcement. “Now he is taking on another big job, with huge challenges, and it is a testament to Ed's stature and skill set that the president has picked the best person for a tough and vital job.”
Despite the long hours involved with his new role, Pagano, who is married to Democratic consultant and MSNBC “Hardball” commentator Jenny Backus, says he still manages to find time for his most important job—being a father to his five-year-old son, John Jack Wallace Pagano. “The new job has been twelve hours per day, but I still get to see my son every morning and read him a story at night.”
—Jon Reidel G'06