Playing the oboe prepares flack for public eye

When political veteran Liz Kerr found herself in a high-stress work situation last year, she relied on her experience as … an oboist.

Kerr, who is Rep. Jim Himes’s (D-Conn.) new communications director, came to Washington from the Michigan Democratic Party, where she was spokeswoman during the drawn-out fight over whether to seat all the state’s delegates at the national convention to nominate the presidential candidate.

Kerr spent the months leading up to the convention “on the telephone with reporters from all over the country” answering questions about the delegates.

“As professional experience, I don’t think I could have asked for anything more,” said Kerr, 30.

Kerr, who majored in oboe performance and economics at the University of Michigan, called the job “occasionally a close second” to the most stressful situation she has ever had: playing in an orchestra with “really demanding conductors.”

“I spent many, many years of my life preparing for performances and thinking about all the different things that could happen — if my reed was going to be bad, or if there was too much humidity in the room,” Kerr said.

“On-the-record experience, especially live on-the-record experience, is just like that. So I just drew upon my music training to help me.”

After campaign season wound down, Kerr hoped to work for a freshman lawmaker focused on financial or energy policy. She found just that in Himes, an investment banker who beat former Rep. Christopher Shays (R) in November and won a seat on the House Finance Committee.

Though this is her first Washington job, she spent two and a half years as an aide to new Rep. Mark Schauer (D-Mich.) when he was in the Michigan Senate, and also campaigned for Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.) in 2004.

One thing she has left behind is her oboe.

“This is what I tell everybody: The world doesn’t need another great oboist,” she said. “The world needs people with money and power who support the arts.”

Kerr’s colleague Caitlin Donohue also brings Himes a trove of political experience, even at 22.

Donohue, Himes’s executive assistant and scheduler, got her first taste of working for a freshman after Rep. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) won his first congressional election in 2006. She arrived before the newly sworn-in Murphy had hired any staff assistants. Over the next several months, Donohue assumed administrative duties, compiled press clips, wrote news releases and constituent letters and gave tours.

“It was really nice because they didn’t just put me on the phone and have me stay there,” she said.

Donohue returned to the University of Connecticut and continued to work for Murphy in his district office through her May 2008 graduation, after which she joined his campaign staff. She was Himes’s initial Washington hire after Murphy recommended her to his new colleague.

Her first scheduling challenge arose quickly.

During new member orientation in December, Himes was notified that the remains of a World War II soldier from his district had been found in France. The Arlington National Cemetery burial was scheduled shortly before lawmakers’ vote for caucus chairman.

“We had a guy on hold to drive us back and get us there on time,” Donohue said. “It was chaos.”

But those are problems Donohue likes to solve.

“I love the pace here,” she said. “Always crazy, running around, you’ve got to track the member down, you’ve got to know what votes are going on, squeeze in meetings, accommodate people, make them happy, all that stuff.”