Chemistry, rival sports teams, bond new Carper aides

The four new aides working for Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) have been together only a matter of weeks. But already they are bonding, cracking jokes and enjoying watching each other being put on the hot seat during this interview.

We have Racquel Russell, 28, Carper’s new healthcare legislative assistant. A boisterous, straightforward woman from the Bronx, Russell previously worked for former Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a former governor, covering his domestic policies. Before that she worked at the National Governors Association.

“Senator Carper always likes to say he’s a recovering governor,” Russell muses, explaining her inexplicable knack for working for former governors. “I wasn’t seeking to work for former governors, but they do have a different way of thinking.”
How so?

“They’re more practical,” she says.

From a young age, Russell wanted to work in politics.

In the seventh grade, she and a cousin wanted to go outside and play one day. But an uncle insisted she and the other little girl come inside and watch C-SPAN. Incredulous, Russell watched. It changed the course of her life.

Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) was on the Senate floor discussing a confederacy bill that the Senate had always approved. Moseley Braun had come to the floor to fight its passage. “Within two hours she got more than half the Senate to come to her side,” Russell recalls.

And she remembered thinking, “Ooh, I want to do that.”

Russell graduated from the University of Miami and then from George Washington University’s law school.

Next up is Trevor Kincaid, 24, the senator’s new press secretary.

A Durham, N.C., native, Kincaid has lived in Texas and then Florida, where he attended Florida State University — hence the rivalry with Russell. 

The press aide says moving around allowed him to “develop a personality that allows me to be friends with a variety of people.”

This is a good quality considering he’s one of the only Democrats in his family. In fact, his brother is the deputy political director of the Republican Governors Association. “It makes Thanksgiving interesting,” he said.

Before coming to Carper’s office, Kincaid worked for the Center for American Progress and the Florida Senate for then-state Sen. Ron Klein (D), now a member of Congress.

Kincaid has landed jobs in unconventional ways. Once, while on a plane, he met a former state representative who got him a job in the Florida Senate. In 2004 he worked on Kerry/Edwards campaign as the North Florida deputy director.

“So now I’ve peaked,” he jokes.

Sean Barney, 32, a legislative assistant handling defense, education and budget issues, is another recently hired aide. But he’s not entirely new.

Before going to Iraq in 2006 to fight as a Marine, he worked as Carper’s legislative aide. After Sept. 11, 2001, his conscience began to weigh on him.

“It did not seem right to me, at such an age and in such a time, that I should be sitting in Washington in the position of a deliberator and debater,” he wrote in the bulletin for his alma mater, Swarthmore College.

During a battle in Fallujah in March 2006, an insurgent sniper shot and wounded Barney. He received a Purple Heart and still undergoes physical therapy for an arm injury.

Carper’s new communications director, Bette Phelan. Previously the spokeswoman to former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) for 12 years, Phelan is hardly new to the workings of Capitol Hill, and one can feel the ease with which she handles her new post.

Phelan grew up on a farm in Quakertown, Pa. It was as rural and quiet as it gets, with beef cattle, chickens and sheep — a far cry from the big-city noise of the nation’s capital.

She first moved to Washington to study international relations and French at American University. One of the highlights of her life was living in Paris for a year. It was memorable — she studied at the Sorbonne and fell in love. “It was wonderful,” she says. “I love the city.”

After college, she studied graduate-level journalism at the University of Missouri and then worked as a reporter for the Amarillo Globe News in Amarillo, Texas.

Eventually she moved back to Pennsylvania, where she worked for Democratic Gov. Bob Casey Sr., as his deputy press aide. She then came to Washington and worked for the Democratic Leadership Council, which is where she met Breaux, who at the time served as chairman.

Phelan stresses that working for Carper is a whole new experience. “You have to play to each member’s strengths,” she says. “Some are better on TV; some are better at giving speeches.”

In the end, says Phelan, “Good policy makes good press.”