Capital Living

The Hill’s 25 Women to Watch

Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Condoleezza Rice — these are women who have made their marks in politics in a big way. But look beyond this highest tier of the country’s most powerful figures and you’ll find a cadre of highly effective women fighting for policies and drawing attention, both favorable and critical, to their own political futures.

The Hill releases its 25 Women to Watch feature to identify those who are getting noticed or who already have begun to distinguish themselves as natural leaders, inspirational figures or gutsy risk-takers. They come from Capitol Hill, presidential campaigns, K Street, the White House and beyond. Each of these women prompts the question, “What might her future hold?”

{mosads}Sandra Fluke, for instance, suddenly came to embody the core controversies over a cluster of social issues, eliciting discussion for several news cycles and later winning a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. Pia Carusone displayed calm during an extraordinarily challenging event and now advises a Cabinet secretary. And Andrea Saul goes to bat for her candidate on a daily basis — usually multiple times per day — in a campaign in which every word counts.

The list is neither comprehensive nor scientific, but it seeks to identify women of whom one should expect to hear more. It includes both widely known names, such as Sheryl Sandberg, and others new to the scene, such as Tulsi Gabbard. What they have in common is a future of likely achievement above what used to be called the glass ceiling.


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CAPITOL HILL

CATHY MCMORRIS RODGERS

GOP MEMBER, THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

At 43 and in her fourth term in Congress, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) is the top-ranking woman in the male-dominated House Republican Conference. She also holds the distinction of being the first member of Congress in history to give birth twice while in office. 

Now she’s gunning for the chairmanship of the conference, a post that would make her one of the party’s most visible spokeswomen.

A prominent leadership spot is far from where McMorris Rodgers thought she would be when she began helping out a family friend’s campaign as her first job out of college. 

“I never imagined myself as being an elected official,” she said in an interview. “I always thought I would work behind the scenes.”

McMorris Rodgers was appointed to her first political office in Washington state in 1995, and served in the state Legislature until she won a House seat in 2004. She describes her start as getting in “the backdoor,” and she says women often wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder instead of “stepping up” on their own and running for public office. 

“As more women run and run successfully and see others doing it, it challenges them to think, ‘OK, that’s something that I can do, too,’ ” she said.

In the House, McMorris Rodgers has been responsible for rebutting Democratic charges that Republicans have engaged in a “war on women.” She is quick to point out that in 2010, Republicans won the women’s vote for the first time since Ronald Reagan was president. 

But as polls show a gender gap re-emerging, she says the GOP should stick to bread-and-butter economic issues and avoid being drawn into the social debates that she says Democrats are using to “distract” voters. 

“For the Republicans, we need to keep talking to women in terms of where they are in their daily lives,” McMorris Rodgers said.

— Russell Berman


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CAPITOL HILL

KELLY AYOTTE

US SENATOR

Kelly Ayotte never ran for elected office before 2010, when she won the New Hampshire Senate seat held by former Sen. Judd Gregg (R). By 2012 she was said to be on GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s short list of running mates.

Her rise in politics has been swift since leaving private practice in a Manchester-based law firm in 1998. In 2004, then-Gov. Craig Benson appointed her state attorney general, and she easily defeated former Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) in her Senate race.

Ayotte’s husband is an Air National Guard veteran who flew combat missions in Iraq, and she has immersed herself in national security issues as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

She has become an ally of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), two of the Senate’s most vocal advocates for a muscular American foreign policy, and positioned herself as a leading critic of President Obama’s terrorist detention policies, an important issue for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

Ayotte, McCain and Graham have led the Senate Republican scrutiny of the administration’s response to the deadly attacks in Benghazi, Libya, issuing a statement earlier this month declaring Obama, and not Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as ultimately responsible for diplomatic security.

She has also teamed with McCain and Graham to oppose automatic spending cuts scheduled for year’s end. Earlier this year, she traveled with the two to Florida, North Carolina and Virginia — and with McCain to New Hampshire — to highlight the impact of the cuts in presidential battleground states. Democrats charged it was a politically motivated effort to hurt Obama with swing voters.

Despite her new prominence on the national stage, Ayotte still flies home every weekend to spend time with her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

When McCain eventually retires, she stands to become a leading voice on defense and national security issues within the Senate GOP conference — no small accomplishment for a junior senator. 

— Alexander Bolton


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CAPITOL HILL

ALLYSON SCHWARTZ

DEMOCRATIC MEMBER, THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

On her way to Washington, Rep. Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) was denied a primary endorsement from the Democratic Party.

What a difference eight years can make.

Schwartz, who’s seeking a fifth term, is now considered a rising star among the party faithful. She’s grabbed a senior position on the influential Budget Committee, is frequently tapped as a dependable public voice for the Democrats and is almost always included on the shortlist of future party leaders.

The 64-year-old attributes that rapid ascension, at least in part, to lessons learned from that 2004 primary when the Democrats backed her opponent.

“I knew that I needed to be my own person,” Schwartz, a former state senator, said recently of that experience, “[that] I needed to be independent, and that as strong as I am as a Democrat — and I am — I also always knew that I had to sort of work it myself, work with outside groups on good public policy, and then work it internally to get it done.”

The formula has paid off, as Schwartz has been successful passing major legislation in her relatively short tenure, including bills to provide small-business tax breaks to veterans and ensure seniors have better access to primary care. 

Schwartz stands out for another reason: Of Pennsylvania’s 20 congressional lawmakers, she’s the only woman. It’s a distinction she’s quick to note — suggesting that at least part of her drive is fueled by the notion of fighting for the state’s underrepresented women.

Schwartz is coy about her future ambitions. But political opponents should be warned: She has no plans to fade away.

“What I want to do is to be able to continue to be influential and be a leader on policy,” she said. “And as long as that … influence is growing, I’m going to stick around, that’s for sure.”

— Mike Lillis


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CAPITOL HILL

ANNE THORSEN

DIRECTOR, FLOOR OPERATIONS 

FOR SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER

In a town where rules are reinvented daily — and even then, rarely obeyed — Anne Thorsen revels in the one institution run by them.

Thorsen, 35, serves as House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) director of floor operations, a job that requires her to craft strategies for moving legislation through the House and advise lawmakers on how to execute those plans.

Unlike the Senate, where almost anything goes, the House is governed by extensive rules to allow for order among the chaos of 435 members. Thorsen says she works for a “great boss who believes in the ‘People’s House’ and wants to make the institution function as it should on behalf of members and the public.”

And since Boehner is known to delegate “most smaller decisions” to his trusted staff, Thorsen has her hands full — which she loves.

“I love the structure of my job,” she explains to The Hill. “I’m a rules nerd through and through, which my children can probably attest to.”

The young but experienced University of Richmond graduate has worn a number of hats in D.C, including legislative director to Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (R-La.) and an assistant legislative liaison for the Small Business Administration under the George W. Bush administration — where she worked in Iraq in 2004 with the Coalition Provisional Authority.

But working in the Capitol, alongside lawmakers and staffers, proves satisfying on a daily basis.

Thorsen says she has “one of the most interesting jobs in the country.” 

“I’m motivated every day by the smart and dedicated people I work with,” she says, “and by the hope that I’m playing a small role in addressing some of the country’s biggest problems.”

As for her future? Thorsen’s not worried.

“I just want to keep doing the best job I can, and I know that the rest will take care of itself,” she says.

— Molly K. Hooper


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CAPITOL HILL

KRISTI WAY

PERSONAL OFFICE CHIEF OF STAFF, HOUSE MAJORITY LEADER ERIC CANTOR

Virginia native Kristi Way never had plans to run a congressional office.

Yet the 35-year-old finds herself as the chief of staff for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) personal office.

Way began working for Cantor when the ambitious lawmaker was earning his stripes in the Virginia Legislature.

“I knew who Eric was because even back then — he was elected to the House of Delegates as the youngest member — he was ‘that cool guy that stood out,’ ” she explained.

Then-Del. Cantor hired Way as a legislative assistant in 1999.

When she took the job, she had no idea he would run for Congress and, furthermore, “no interest in being a part of congressional races in D.C.,” she said. 

Little more than six months later, she was driving Cantor around the district, scheduling his events as he navigated an intense primary battle — which he won by 263 votes — and, later, a general-election victory.

During those 18-hour campaign days, Way came to know Cantor and his family.

“I was very inspired by his work ethic and how excited he was to run for Congress,” she said, noting that she wouldn’t have campaigned so hard for just any politician.

When Cantor was elected to the House, Way became director of the Richmond-based district. She remained in that position until taking a brief stint on a statewide political campaign.

When she returned, Way started splitting time between D.C. and Richmond. In 2006, when Cantor was elected House minority whip, Way was selected as chief of staff for his personal office.

She continues to work in Richmond and D.C., but if Cantor were to up and retire, there’s no question that the native of Albemarle County — known as Thomas Jefferson country — would hightail it back to the heart of the Old Dominion.

— Molly K. Hooper


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CAPITOL HILL

CATLIN O’NEILL

CHIEF OF STAFF, HOUSE MINORITY LEADER NANCY PELOSI

Catlin O’Neill, the chief of staff to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), has politics in her veins. Not only is the D.C.-area native the granddaughter of legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill, but her great-great-grandfather — on the other side of the family — is George Wallace Jones, one of the first senators to represent Iowa in Washington.

Both would surely appreciate O’Neill’s rapid ascent on Capitol Hill, where the 35-year-old “commands the respect of members of Congress and my constituents,” in the words of Pelosi.

Still, O’Neill says her foray into politics was hardly inevitable. Indeed, she was a self-described idealist working in the music industry in New York City when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provoked a move to public service.

“My world came crashing down and I realized that I had just been sort of naive,” she said in an interview this month.

After a stint with former Gov. Bill Richardson in New Mexico, O’Neill accepted an offer from Pelosi to come to Washington. She thought she might last two years before returning to the arts. Instead, she came to adore the work.

“I never expected to live in Washington, D.C., and I certainly never expected to work in politics,” she said. “[But] I had sort of this moment of clarity where I said, ‘You’re committed to this, you love this, just go with it.’ ”

O’Neill attributes much of her success to Pelosi, whom she calls “a role model” and “a tremendous force of nature.”

It’s a respect that’s reciprocated. 

“Her commitment to public service and her dynamism are in her DNA,” Pelosi said. “In all that she does, she wins admirers and friends.” 

O’Neill’s future, she said, remains up in the air.

“My life has been blessed with a series of phenomenal opportunities … so I’m hoping that something comes along that’s just as exciting,” she said. 

“But,” she added, “I’ve never really been a big planner.”

— Mike Lillis


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CAMPAIGN

MIA LOVE

UTAH CANDIDATE FOR THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Few small-town mayors get the chance to speak at their party’s national convention — but Saratoga Springs, Utah, Mayor Mia Love (R) is no ordinary small-town mayor.

She is one of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s top recruits this election cycle and is giving battle-hardened Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) one of the toughest races of his career. She also has a unique profile, as a daughter of Haitian immigrants who converted to Mormonism and moved west from Connecticut shortly after she graduated college.

Love is a trained actress — she turned down a role in a Broadway musical because it conflicted with her wedding — and her comfort onstage was on display at this year’s Republican National Convention, where she delivered a well-received speech focused on her immigrant roots, self-reliance and entrepreneurship.

Love got started in politics at a very local level, leading the charge to force her neighborhood’s developers to spray for bugs. She soon started showing up at city council meetings, and when she felt her opinions were being ignored, she decided to run for a council seat. She won both that campaign and, six years later, a mayoral race in the 1,000-person town outside of Salt Lake City. 

Now she’s aiming for a much higher seat. Originally a dark-horse candidate, Love won the nomination with surprising ease, enjoying more than two-thirds support at the state GOP convention.

She’s drawn high-profile surrogates, too: Ann Romney, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have fundraised or stumped for her, and Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have donated to her campaign.

Polls show a tight race between Love and Matheson. If she wins, she’ll be thrust into her party’s spotlight — but even if Matheson holds on, she’s unlikely to disappear from the political scene.

— Cameron Joseph


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CAMPAIGN

TULSI GABBARD

HAWAII CANDIDATE FOR THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Tulsi Gabbard has already experienced a lot of firsts.

At 21, she became the youngest person ever elected to Hawaii’s Legislature. Two years later, she became the state’s first elected official to resign and go to war when she headed to Iraq with her fellow soldiers from the Army’s 29th Brigade, forfeiting what would’ve been an easy reelection to the Statehouse.

She returned and enrolled in the Accelerated Officer Candidate School in Alabama and became the first female student to receive the Distinguished Honor Graduate award in the school’s half-century history. Shortly after, at the end of her second tour of duty in the Middle East, she was the first woman ever to receive an award from the Kuwaiti Guards.

And now the 31-year-old is running to become the first Hindu-American and one of the first female combat veterans elected to Congress. Though her candidacy was a long shot in the primary, she looks to be the favorite for the general election.

Born in American Samoa, Gabbard moved with her family to Hawaii when she was 2 years old. She grew up helping with the family businesses and went on to earn an international business degree at Hawaii Pacific University. 

Gabbard says her experience in the military has given her the skills she’ll need in Congress, along with a unique perspective on veterans’ issues that comes from being one of the first females in combat.

“At a practical level, [in the military] I learned to identify a problem, identify the solution and how to determine the best possible course of action to get there,” she told The Hill.

Gabbard was tapped to speak at the Democratic National Convention alongside other rising female Democratic stars as well as more established ones. The speech was her biggest platform yet, but she began it with a familiar greeting that she might be saying a lot more in the coming months: “Aloha!” 

— Alexandra Jaffe


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CAMPAIGN

ELIZABETH WARREN

MASSACHUSETTS SENATORIAL CANDIDATE

Elizabeth Warren’s path to politics is by no means typical. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Warren was far from wealthy growing up, and she worked a number of odd jobs as a teen, waitressing to help make ends meet at home.

A strong student and a champion debater, Warren, now 63, graduated from high school at the age of 16 and went to George Washington University on a debate scholarship, ultimately returning home to marry her high-school sweetheart two years later. She went on to have two children with her first husband, finish college and enroll in Rutgers Law School the day her second child turned 2.

Warren soon started practicing law out of her living room and set off on a career path as a professor that would eventually bring her to teach at Harvard. But her experience studying bankruptcy law set the groundwork for her eventual ascendancy as a Democratic Party darling. That research revealed to her that the majority of those who file for bankruptcy are middle-class families that have fallen on hard times, a finding that guided her work as a consumer advocate and eventually brought her to Washington. Once here, she chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel that oversaw the Troubled Asset Relief Program in 2008.

Warren gave a rousing, well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention this year, and she’s one of the rare Democratic candidates to secure President Obama’s endorsement.

She’s now putting up a fierce fight against Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) for his seat in the Senate and looks to be the favorite going into the final phase of the campaign. She’s leading the Republican in most polls and outraised him by $4 million in the third quarter, making her the second-strongest Senate candidate in terms of fundraising nationwide.

Though Warren’s win is by no means assured, her continued rise in the Democratic Party surely is.

— Alexandra Jaffe


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CAMPAIGN

JEN PSAKI

TRAVELING PRESS SECRETARY, OBAMA’S 2012 CAMPAIGN

If President Obama wins a second term, you might be hearing — and seeing — a lot more of Jen Psaki.

Psaki, who serves as Obama’s traveling campaign press secretary, will inarguably be among the few contenders for a promotion to the podium whenever White House press secretary Jay Carney chooses to move on from the lights and cameras of the Brady Briefing Room.

Psaki has become an old, trusted hand for Team Obama. When an Obama presidency seemed like a long shot in 2007, it was Psaki, with her Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chops, who served as deputy press secretary and later Obama’s press secretary on the road. After he was elected president, Psaki worked as a White House spokesperson before moving up the ranks and becoming the deputy White House communications director.

The red-headed 33-year-old left the White House last year to become senior vice president and managing director at Global Strategy Group. But she was sucked back into ObamaWorld earlier this year, to serve as the president’s mouthpiece on the road, standing alongside Carney on Air Force One gaggles with reporters.

“Working with Jen is a pleasure, and I am sure it’s not easy — campaign and White House reporters can be so intense,” said Julie Mason, a longtime White House reporter who now hosts “The Press Pool” on Sirius XM. “But her ability to maintain a cool head while still talking like a human and not a robot is pretty standout for that profession. She also gets some funny lines off, which shows confidence.

“I am very curious to see what role she takes on after the election,” Mason said.

Psaki, who took leave from her job at Global Strategy Group, is expected to return to the job after the election. But one can’t help but wonder if she’ll be making yet another return to Team Obama in the near future. 

— Amie Parnes


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CAMPAIGN

STEPHANIE CUTTER

DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER, OBAMA’S 2012 CAMPAIGN

Stephanie Cutter has emerged as one of the most visible members of President Obama’s reelection brain trust, known collectively as “Chicago.”

Cutter, Team Obama’s 44-year-old deputy campaign manager, is tasked with framing the president’s policy positions in a rapidly shifting and risk-fraught age of social media and cable news ubiquity.

Cutter takes her blunt and unapologetic messaging style — critics call her tone harsh and caustic — to the news shows, direct-to-camera Web videos and to Twitter. In a time when reporters and pundits have access to every small-town radio interview and can capture off moments on smartphone video, the job is not for the thin-skinned.

But Cutter has spent her career in this political hothouse, making 2012 just another election cycle for the veteran.

Her resume is a who’s-who of powerful Democratic pols: She’s worked in various positions for the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), former President  Clinton, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), among others.

Nicknamed “The Ninja” for her stealth, Cutter has earned a reputation for making the toughest political sells, working to shape the administration’s messaging for the president’s healthcare law, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the AIG bailout.

Cutter worked her way into Chicago’s famously closed-off inner circle after gaining the trust of Michelle Obama while helping with her “Let’s Move!” childhood obesity campaign.

Though she’s a fierce fighter in the political arena, Cutter isn’t one to personally seek out the spotlight — she was not available to speak with The Hill for this feature.

Where Cutter lands next will depend on whether her boss maintains his Pennsylvania Avenue address. Just don’t expect her to be rewarded with a cushy position after the election; Team Obama will likely send its Ninja back into the thick of things.

— Jonathan Easley


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CAMPAIGN

ANDREA SAUL

NATIONAL PRESS SECRETARY, ROMNEY’S 2012 CAMPAIGN

Mitt Romney’s sons have often said that their mother, Ann, serves as “the great Mitt stabilizer” in times of distress. But during the trials and tribulations of a national presidential campaign, the Republican nominee has leaned on a different woman — national press secretary Andrea Saul — to calm the waters.

Saul, 30, is described as perceptive, intelligent and savvy beyond her years. But more than anything, friends credit the Dalton, Ga., native’s strong work ethic for her quick rise through the Republican communications world.

Saul first honed her ability to work hard and fast with a job for NBC during the network’s production of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. She then moved to Washington, where she worked first for the DCI Group and later for John McCain’s GOP presidential campaign as the media affairs director.

“A lot of us met Andrea in the McCain campaign and really liked her,” Romney adviser Beth Myers said. “When things were going well, when things were going tough, she was always really nice and pleasant to work with.

“When we were looking to expand our campaign in 2010, we thought about people who had done a really good job in 2008 and everybody likes,” Myers said, “and Andrea fits in both those buckets.”

Saul told Glamour magazine that the long hours are made easier by knowing that she’s working for someone she truly likes and respects — and that “there’s an end date and a worthy goal in sight.”

She might still be best known in her hometown for her family’s multimillion-dollar carpet manufacturing business, but a Romney win could secure Saul a job in the White House.

“She’s really good on camera, she’s a really good writer, and she’s a really great manager, so anything she wants to do, she’s going to be good at,” Myers said.

— Justin Sink


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WHITE HOUSE

ALYSSA MASTROMONACO

WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF

Alyssa Mastromonaco, who serves as a deputy chief of staff to President Obama, likens herself to being “a bit of a free spirit.”

But she’s also a stickler for planning, both professionally and personally. She sets an alarm every day and has been known to send herself Outlook reminders to catch the NBC show “Parenthood” each week. There’s also, from time to time, a separate reminder to take her morning vitamins.

“If this is the person you have to be, these are the things you have to do,” Mastromonaco, 36, said in an interview with The Hill.

Known to her colleagues as the ultimate problem solver with a steel-trap memory, Mastromonaco began her life in politics as an intern for then-Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in his district office nearly 18 years ago.

After moving to Washington in 2001, she landed a job as a scheduling and press assistant in Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) office before going on to serve as the scheduling and advance director for his 2004 presidential bid. After Kerry lost the race, Mastromonaco’s world changed when her former colleague, Robert Gibbs, asked if she would work for a new Senate freshman named Barack Obama.

The answer was a no-brainer.

Soon, she was crisscrossing the country with the rising Senate star, serving as his point person on all-things logistical. The Rhinebeck, N.Y., native went on to work as the scheduling and advance director for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and then landed at the White House with the same title.

Now Mastromonaco oversees scheduling, advance, presidential personnel and beyond — and she likes to do the job with as much anonymity as possible.

“The less people know about me, the more I’m doing a good job,” she said. “If no one knows about me, that means there are no problems.”

What about her future plans? “I will serve POTUS as he needs me to serve,” she said.

— Amie Parnes


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WHITE HOUSE

KRISTINA SCHAKE

FIRST LADY’S COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR

The key to Kristina Schake’s success, says one of her closest confidants, is her ability to keep her eyes on the prize.

It’s a skill that has served the 42-year-old California native well throughout her career and undoubtedly in her current gig as first lady Michelle Obama’s communications director.

{mosads}Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, has known Schake for more than a dozen years. Before they both came to Washington, the pair co-founded the Los Angeles public affairs and strategic communications firm Griffin Schake.

“You can never get Kristina flustered,” Griffin says. “She focuses like a laser. It’s impossible to get her flustered or knock her off mission.”

Schake was former California first lady Maria Shriver’s chief strategist before coming to the White House. Since then, she has helped steer Obama’s campaign to support military families as well as her anti-childhood obesity “Let’s Move!” initiative at a time when the first lady has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings.

Griffin says his friend, who’s constantly on the road with Obama, thrives no matter what the situation, doing it all with a broad smile on her face. 

“She’s always the steady hand and steady mind when it comes to these high-pressure, high-profile, very intense campaigns,” he says.

Calling Schake “one of the most strategic minds in the business,” Griffin adds, ”You can be in the midst in the grandest hurricane, and Kristina’s will always be the calm voice of reason that always brings us back to the mission and the focus.”

While he predicts Schake can achieve “anything she wants” in the future, Griffin says, right now, the PR guru’s sharp focus is aimed solely at her work with the first lady.

“I don’t think she’s had a single minute to look further down the road than the task at hand.”

— Judy Kurtz


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EXECUTIVE BRANCH


PIA CARUSONE

HOMELAND SECURITY ASSISTANT SECRETARY

Pia Carusone is not too interested in climbing the ladder of political success; the former emergency medical technician says she’s more focused on helping people. It just so happens she’s incredibly good — and successful — with her career in Washington.

The 32-year-old assistant secretary for public affairs at the Homeland Security Department emerged from relative obscurity nearly two years ago when her then-boss, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), and 18 other people were shot while at a community event outside a Tucson, Ariz., Safeway.

As the office reeled from shock and the prospects of Giffords’s recovery shifted daily, Carusone, Giffords’s chief of staff, filled the void.

“Pia rose to the occasion, and we all followed her lead,” said former Giffords communications director C.J. Karamargin. “She was deftly able to guide us through that period of uncertainty, and that takes an extraordinary amount of skill, understanding and sensitivity. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it the same way.”

Carusone started in politics nine years ago, working on former Rep. Carol Shea Porter’s (D-N.H.) and Rep. John Sarbanes’s (D-Md.) campaigns, and eventually landed a job as Giffords’s right-hand woman on Capitol Hill.

“I never really had a long-term goal for myself,” Carusone said. “I’ve been more interested in the substance and content of my work, my team, and always surrounding myself with a good crew.”

In her new role, Carusone draws from her Arizona experience, tackling issues ranging from the U.S.-Mexico border to national and local emergency-response efforts to events like Hurricane Isaac.

Carusone’s rise has come with lessons learned, though: Always make time for your friends and family, because they are the ones who matter and will keep you grounded, she says; take risks and aim for things that seem out of reach, because you’ll surprise yourself; and don’t forget to take vacations.

— Jordy Yager


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EXECUTIVE BRANCH

MICHELE FLOURNOY

FORMER DEFENSE UNDERSECRETARY

After a stint as the highest-ranking woman at the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy is enjoying her time off from government work.

“I can reassure folks, there is life after government, and it’s good,” Flournoy said in an interview with The Hill.

But just how long she stays out of a high-profile public-sector job is an open question in the defense world.

Flournoy, who stepped down from the No. 3 position at the Pentagon earlier this year, is frequently mentioned among possible successors to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, should President Obama win reelection.

For now, the former undersecretary of Defense for policy is doing her part to help the Obama campaign as a surrogate, and is also keeping busy with consulting work and her three children.

Flournoy won’t speculate about her future prospects at the Defense Department, but will say her career is far from over.

“I am only 51 — I have more public service in me,” she said.

If Flournoy were to become the first female Defense secretary, it would only be the latest barrier she’s broken through. She is quick to mention that the ranks of women at the Pentagon have swelled since she began her career there during the Clinton administration.

“In my first stint in the Pentagon, we had a women’s leadership lunch, and everybody sat at one table,” Flournoy said. “Now if you do that at the Pentagon, you’d overflow a dining room.”

Growing up in Southern California, Flournoy said the early experience of moving from Hollywood to Harvard for college helped prepare her to adapt to new cultures — the Pentagon included.

“It was — for a kid who grew up [on the] west side of L.A. and played beach volleyball — like landing on another planet,” she said. “In some ways, coming into the Pentagon for my first tour was very much arriving in a new culture.”

— Jeremy Herb


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INFLUENCERS

NEERA TANDEN

PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS

Neera Tanden shapes political policy through a lens of life experience. 

As president of the Center for American Progress, the 42-year-old Tanden is putting her stamp on the progressive think tank as it churns out solutions on a diverse range of issues.

“We can influence the debate and we want to make positive changes through policy,” she said. 

Tanden has shown a willingness to fight tough battles — she was instrumental in ushering the healthcare law through Congress — and remains positive about Washington’s ability to pass better policy.

“My experience on healthcare is that members of Congress were trying to do the right thing,” she said, adding that she’s “less jaded” after that experience.

Tanden rose through the ranks over a 20-year career of domestic policy work in the Clinton and Obama administrations and on the campaign trail. 

She believes that policy should be crafted so “economic growth can be more broadly shared,” a stance influenced by a difficult time in her youth when her family hit a rough patch and needed government help to get back on their feet.

“Everybody wants access to the American Dream — they want a shot,” she said.

She is also starting a new initiative on women’s leadership roles in the workplace and calls herself “very fortunate” to have “really fantastic mentors” — among them her mother and Hillary Rodham Clinton, for whom she worked at the White House, in the Senate and during her 2008 presidential bid. 

“I’ve been incredibly lucky to work in Washington in important jobs working for women who didn’t just talk the talk but walked the walk,” she said.

— Vicki Needham


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INFLUENCERS

MARY KAY HENRY

PRESIDENT, SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION

As president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Mary Kay Henry is in charge of one of the most politically aggressive unions in the country.

Henry is also the first woman to lead the SEIU. First elected in May 2010 by the union’s international executive board, Henry was the unexpected choice to succeed Andy Stern, who had been SEIU’s president for 14 years. Henry, 55, was reelected this year and has worked to maintain the union’s reputation as a political and organizing force. 

“Our union wants to revitalize the idea that the problem of income inequality can be resolved by workers joining together and negotiating for better wages,” Henry said. “That’s the No. 1 problem we want to address.”

The Detroit native has worked at SEIU for 33 years and was first elected to its executive board in 1996. She was considered key to getting President Obama’s 2010 healthcare reform law passed.

SEIU will also be invaluable to Democratic candidates this fall. The union has undertaken an expansive get-out-the-vote operation, while Henry has served as a high-profile surrogate for President Obama — she spoke at the Democratic National Convention and has been in the spin room for Obama after some of the presidential debates.

“Reelecting Barack Obama is the single-minded focus of this union right now,” Henry said. “What motivates us right now is doubling down in battleground states, having our members volunteer and reach out to their friends and co-workers.”

Openly gay, Henry said SEIU is a diverse union.

“I think what the union allows is a deep respect for our differences and an understanding that we are all fighting for the same things: a fair economy and a just democracy,” she said.

— Kevin Bogardus 


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INFLUENCERS

SUSAN MOLINARI

VICE PRESIDENT OF POLICY AND GOVERNMENT RELATIONS, GOOGLE

Susan Molinari has gone from Congress to the TV co-anchor chair during her career, and she has shaken things up again with a bold move to Silicon Valley.

Molinari, 54, was tapped to head Google’s Washington office in February, a sought-after job that comes with the prestige of working for one of the nation’s most successful Internet companies. 

Leading the D.C. office of a growing enterprise like Google would be a daunting task for anyone, but Molinari said she’s always been attracted to big challenges.

“None of these positions come with a guarantee of no failure,” Molinari said. “Step outside your comfort zone in order to challenge yourself and bring your experiences to another place.”

Taking risks has paid off, she said, because with big challenges “comes the bigger opportunity to do things like I’m doing now.”

Congress and the hip Silicon Valley search giant might seem worlds apart, but the former House GOP lawmaker believes the two aren’t so different.

“[There’s] one thing that’s clear in the Google ethos, and that is a respect for their users,” she said. “They want to hear from them, they want to work for them. They’re helping the next new business, helping the next Google. And if you’re an elected official and you’re doing your job the right way, that’s what you want to do.”

Working at a search company wasn’t something that Molinari envisioned at the start of her career, especially coming from a political family. Her father, Guy Victor Molinari, served as a Republican House member from 1981 to 1989.

Molinari said she hopes to have “a long and healthy relationship” with her new employer.

“I have a tendency to not plan too far in the future, but not to look back, either, and that’s been the key to my happiness,” she said.

— Jennifer Martinez


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INFLUENCERS

KIRSTEN CHADWICK

PARTNER, FIERCE, ISAKOWITZ & BLALOCK

Kirsten Chadwick didn’t think she was going to have a career in politics.

“I actually wanted to be an architect,” she said. “Then I got a D in physics, so I thought, ‘The building is going to fall down — time for a new major.’ ”

Chadwick, 43, is a partner at Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, one of Washington’s most prominent lobby shops. The Republican-leaning firm is in high demand, signing up a number of brand-name companies, like Apple and Oracle, since the GOP took over the House in the 2010 midterm elections.

The Penn State University graduate said the lobbying process — the vote-counting, the interaction with lawmakers and their staffs — is appealing to her.

“I like being up on the Hill and having my finger on the pulse,” she said.

Chadwick lobbies for several clients, including the Business Roundtable, Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Ford and JPMorgan Chase.

The Newton, Mass., native said that while architecture was her first love, politics was always on the horizon. Chadwick’s mother is at Fox News, and has worked with Roger Ailes for more than 25 years, including a stint as a political strategist crafting advertising for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

Chadwick worked as an assistant to Airlines for America President and CEO Nick Calio when he was the legislative affairs director in the first Bush White House. She followed Calio to K Street and then back to the White House after the election of George W. Bush, serving as a legislative affairs special assistant.

Calio “taught me all of the essentials,” she said. “I really attribute it to learning from one of the best.”

Chadwick said she is happy at the lobby shop, which feels like family.

“Keep providing the good service that we do, keep working on the politics,” Chadwick said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

— Kevin Bogardus


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INFLUENCERS

MAYA MACGUINEAS

PRESIDENT, COMMITTEE FOR A RESPONSIBLE FEDERAL BUDGET

In Washington you’re hot when your issue is hot, and with the budget deficit skyrocketing to the top of the national conversation, Maya MacGuineas is on fire.

MacGuineas, 44, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has spent her entire career on the deficit. These days she’s become a go-to analyst for information about the budget plans of President Obama and Mitt Romney.

But her work hasn’t always been du jour. While at Wall Street firm Paine Webber in the 1990s, MacGuineas couldn’t find a single book explaining the budget deficit in simple terms.

“I decided to write a ‘Deficit for Dummies’ book — and then they came up with a policy to balance the budget,” she said.

But the budget surpluses of the Clinton years quickly turned into deficits under President George W. Bush, and MacGuineas soon found herself at the Brookings Institution and the New America Foundation pushing for fiscal restraint.

Leading the charge to make sure Congress cuts a big, long-term deal to replace automatic spending cuts and tax increases in January, MacGuineas is playing both inside and outside games. She is working with the secretive Senate “Gang of Eight” on a plan, and is also helping coordinate the Campaign to Fix the Debt coalition to promote the deficit as an issue in congressional races. 

The Washington native says she is resolutely nonpartisan — though she did provide advice to the 2000 presidential campaign of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). 

Known as much for her optimism as for her role as an honest judge of fiscal plans, MacGuineas is hopeful Congress can avoid the fiscal cliff and tame the debt.

“My kids really want to get this resolved so we can stop talking about the deficit at the dinner table,” the married mother of two said. “My gosh, my 8-year-old knows all the details of the fiscal cliff.”

— Erik Wasson


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OUTSIDERS

SHERYL SANDBERG

CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, FACEBOOK

Sheryl Sandberg, a self-made billionaire, is one of the most successful women in business, and there is buzz that she might one day plunge into politics. 

The 43-year-old is known as “the adult in the room” at Facebook, where she has helped 28-year-old founder Mark Zuckerberg turn a social media site for college kids into a multibillion-dollar Internet empire.

Although Sandberg is known for her management skills and business instincts, she is also well-versed in public policy. 

As an undergraduate at Harvard, she impressed economics Professor Larry Summers, who later recruited her to the World Bank. After earning her M.B.A., she served as Summers’s chief of staff when he was Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration.

In 2001, Sandberg moved to Silicon Valley and joined Google, heading up its advertising and publishing products. 

Looking for a new challenge, Sandberg became Facebook’s chief operating officer in March 2008. She overhauled its advertising system, and by September 2009, the company became profitable for the first time. Facebook named Sandberg as the first woman on its board of directors in June 2012. 

Sandberg, who is married with two young children, has earned a reputation as a forceful advocate for women to succeed in the workplace. She opposes affirmative action programs for women and argues that they should be more assertive. She also says men need to take on more household responsibilities.

“A world where men ran half our homes and women ran half our institutions would be just a much better world,” she said in a 2011 commencement speech at Barnard College.

Sandberg serves on President Obama’s jobs council, and held a fundraiser for him at her house last year. Some speculate that she could be in line for a Cabinet post if he wins reelection. Others wonder whether she might run for office herself.

Sandberg downplayed those rumors in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.

“I love my job, and I’m staying,” she said.

— Brendan Sasso


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OUTSIDERS

GABRIELLE GIFFORDS

FORMER DEMOCRATIC MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Gabrielle Giffords may have left Capitol Hill, but she’s nowhere near finished with politics and public service.

Having launched her own political action committee — “Gabby PAC” — the former Democratic congresswoman from Arizona is feeding her hunger to effect change as she forges a career operating behind the scenes while she continues her recovery.

Giffords, 42, was shot nearly two years ago while holding an event in her Tucson, Ariz., district. Many weren’t sure if the vivacious lawmaker would ever fully recuperate. But they clearly didn’t know Giffords well.

Her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, told The Hill that Giffords has redirected the verve she once brought to Congress to her ongoing rehabilitation.

“Throughout her career in Congress, Gabby made real change by focusing on finding bipartisan solutions on issues like solar energy, border security, and increasing opportunities for young people by investing in education,” Kelly said in an email. “Now, she is bringing that same positivity and energy to her recovery.”

In an increasingly partisan environment, many people are hoping Giffords, a former registered Republican, will be able to use her skills and position away from Washington to foster cooperation between the parties. Her influence was on display at this year’s Democratic National Convention, where her appearance to lead the Pledge of Allegiance drew an emotional standing ovation.

Giffords’s PAC has yet to make any splashes, but she has several other projects up her sleeve, and both she and Kelly are bound to make their mark, according to people close to the couple.

Kelly said they recently moved back to Tucson and are enjoying the proximity to friends and family. Giffords constantly impresses him and their two daughters on her path to recovery, he said.

“Focused on speech and physical therapy, Gabby continues to inspire me and Claudia and Claire every day,” Kelly said. “Gabby is making terrific strides, and her future is bright.”

— Jordy Yager


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OUTSIDERS

SANDRA FLUKE

GEORGETOWN LAW GRADUATE

If 2012 yielded a political icon, Sandra Fluke would almost certainly be it.

Fluke, 31, was thrust into the spotlight after she was prevented from testifying on Capitol Hill in favor of President Obama’s birth-control coverage mandate.

Now, the Georgetown Law graduate has gone from a punching bag for Rush Limbaugh (the conservative radio host infamously called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” for supporting Obama’s policy) to a sought-after surrogate for Democratic candidates around the country.

The role of Dem-campaigner-du-jour has taken her from Florida to Washington state to Ohio to Massachusetts, where she stumped for Democratic Senate hopeful Elizabeth Warren last week. 

Fluke’s rising star also netted her a speech at the Democratic National Convention, where she blasted Republicans for desiring a future for women’s healthcare that “looks like an offensive, obsolete relic of our past.”

Originally from small-town Pennsylvania, Fluke pursued feminist and gender studies as an undergraduate at Cornell University and went on to work at a nonprofit group against domestic violence before choosing Georgetown Law.

Now a resident of Los Angeles, Fluke (pronounced like “book”) recently said she’s ready to talk about more than women’s healthcare and birth control.

“I think, perhaps, anti-poverty work,” she told National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm this month.

“I think I’ll be doing public policy work rather than litigation,” Fluke said. “And I’m sure that that’s going to focus on issues of social justice.”

Asked if she would ever run for office, Fluke didn’t rule it out.

“Maybe it’s something that I would think about someday,” she told the radio host. “It’s not my focus at this particular moment, but I am really concerned that we don’t see enough women in office.”

— Elise Viebeck


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OUTSIDERS

GOV. SUSANA MARTINEZ

GOP GOVERNOR OF NEW MEXICO

As the nation’s first female Hispanic governor, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) has the potential to help her party with two populations it’s long struggled with.

She’s also a popular conservative governor in a liberal-leaning state, a talented retail politician and a former Democrat with a strong appeal to independent voters.

Martinez’s potential — and her easy charm — was on full display at this year’s Republican National Convention, at which she was given the coveted slot of introducing vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. She delivered, with a well-received speech interweaving her personal story of conversion to the GOP with attacks on President Obama’s record.

She’s just as popular at home, where multiple polls show her approval rating greater than 60 percent in a state where the Republican brand is unpopular. Martinez was on many Republicans’ shortlist for vice presidential nominee, but she insisted she’d turn down the job because she needs to stay in New Mexico to take care of her mentally disabled sister.

Martinez grew up in a lower-middle-class Democratic household in El Paso, Texas, and became a Republican in 1995 before her first run for office. She’s a social and fiscal conservative and big supporter of gun rights, but the governor has shown a fierce independent streak.

In recent months she has criticized GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for his comments on immigrant self-deportation, warned that the party had alienated Hispanics during its primary, and chided the White House hopeful for his “47 percent” remark. But she has nonetheless campaigned for Romney, most recently appearing in Nevada.

Martinez insists she’s not interested in running for higher office. But she’s respected by her party’s conservatives and loved by Republicans worried about the party’s Hispanic problem — and her star will likely continue to rise within the GOP. 

— Cameron Joseph

Tags Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Boehner Cathy McMorris Rodgers Charles Boustany Elizabeth Warren Eric Cantor Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Jim Matheson John Boehner John Kerry John McCain Kelly Ayotte Lindsey Graham Michelle Obama Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Tulsi Gabbard
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