In politics, it's easy for outside observers to mistakenly equate power with visibility. While the show ponies of the Capitol inevitably enjoy more press coverage, the workhorses quietly labor to get things done behind the scenes.
One of those workhorses is Diane Dewhirst, Rep. Nancy Pelosi's deputy chief of staff for strategic planning. She's been working in national politics for nearly 40 years, and has a hand in almost any long-term planning—from communications, to outreach, to member services, to scheduling, to overall strategy—that goes on in the House minority leader's office.
Dewhirst, 57, seems to understand that you don't go to work on the Hill to get famous; you work on the Hill to try to advance your team's agenda, and make your boss' life easier in the process.
Dewhirst said one of her fondest memories on the Hill was Jan. 4, 2007: the day her boss became the first female speaker of the House.
"I have been privileged to do a lot of different things, and seen a lot of history up close. That day—and I get tingles thinking about it—was probably the most memorable I will have," she says. "The only thing that made it even more thrilling was, once she was in office, to see her use the gavel, as they say, or to use her ability to bring people together and to get things done."
Dewhirst grew up outside of Philadelphia in a sports-obsessed family. She originally wanted to be a sports reporter, and majored in journalism before switching to political science. As a college student, Dewhirst campaigned for Jimmy Carter and Democratic Rep. Abner Mikva of Illinois, borrowing her father's red Buick Skylark and driving to campaign events to pass out leaflets.
After a summer spent interning in Washington, she went on to work for the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and in the office of Sen. George Mitchell of Maine. She then spent 12 years as an independent consultant before joining Pelosi's staff in 2005.
But Dewhirst's influence on the Hill eclipses her exposure. Her role in Pelosi's office is that of consigliere, advising the minority leader on a broad array of policies and working to bring in stakeholders and build relationships.
Cecile Richards, who worked with Dewhirst in Pelosi's office as deputy chief of staff before becoming president of Planned Parenthood, praised Dewhirst's "excellent judgment," political savvy, and broad expertise.
"She's the first person I call if I'm trying to really get the lay of the land on an important issue, particularly on the Hill," Richards says. "You work on Capitol Hill very long, there are very few people that no one has a bad thing to say about. Diane definitely is at the top of that list."
Dewhirst cites the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 among her biggest accomplishments. Pelosi and her staff worked doggedly to push the health care bill through the House, but reaped the political consequences in the 2010 midterms as a result. More recently, Pelosi teamed up with House Speaker John Boehner to pass the so-called "doc fix," helping prevent a 20 percent cut to doctors' Medicare payments.
And Dewhirst's biggest regrets?
"I wish we didn't lose the majority," she laughs. "I wish we could have figured out some way for the Senate to have done equal pay, when the House passed it and they weren't able to."
As the leader of a sometimes-unruly caucus, Pelosi is often focused—as is her staff—on building consensus. In 2016, House Democrats will have to fight tooth and nail to ensure Republicans don't gain an even larger majority in the chamber. That means some Democrats will have to buck Pelosi's leadership, as 41 of them did last week by voting for the National Defense Authorization Act.
Outside of her official duties, Dewhirst has made an effort to mentor young people in politics, especially young women. When Richards' daughter, Lily Adams, expressed an interest in politics, Dewhirst took her on as a mentee.
"She's always been one of those staffers who is looking back and making sure that she's reaching a hand for the next generation," says Adams, who now works as a spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in Iowa. "She's never too busy to help out."
And while the question of balancing family and work has become somewhat of a cliché for working mothers, Dewhirst's female colleagues say she set an inspiring example as someone who was able to pull off both tasks.
"When I was first coming up on the Hill, I didn't see a lot of role models in terms of women in senior positions who had small children, or had children at all. So it was hard to envision that you could do very well at your job and achieve a level of success, and also have a family in that environment," says Terri McCullough, who used to work with Dewhirst and now works for the Clinton Foundation. "She was one of the few models in that space that I saw."
In the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, Pelosi says that when she first ran for office, interviewers asked who would take care of her children, despite the fact that her youngest was already a senior in high school at that point. Like her boss, Dewhirst tends to brush off others' concerns about her ability to find a successful balance in the workplace and at home—she's too busy actually doing it.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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