Seven years ago, Jennifer DeCasper decided that being a deputy district attorney in Colorado wasn't for her. Though she'd risen quickly through the legal ranks, working as a prosecutor "started becoming hard on my soul," and she needed a more zen place to be.
"What's less stressful than being a prosecutor?" DeCasper asked herself. "Capitol Hill."
Unlike some anxious staffers, DeCasper, 36, finds "peace" in her work as chief of staff to Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and colleagues cite her understated approach as distinguishing her from others on the Hill.
That approach might be partly natural and partly deliberate. DeCasper shies away from the Hill social circuit and, in an interview, downplays her position as one of service—to her staff, her boss, and the South Carolina constituents. She also notes that she doesn't fit the profile of other chiefs. For one, she's the only African-American chief in the Senate (though "I don't think that's something to be proud of"). For another, she's a single mother to a seven-year-old—a quality not seen "very often in this world" of Washington.
Though she's no longer a practicing attorney, DeCasper says she still tries to keep her hand in the office's criminal-justice portfolio. Lately, that has meant helping her boss push for broader law-enforcement use of body cameras, a technology that supporters suggest would combat police brutality and fix police-community distrust.
DeCasper says April's police shooting in North Charleston, South Carolina—Scott's hometown—"really rattled us." In that incident, bystander video captured a white police officer fire at a black man eight times after a traffic stop.
Since that shooting—and even more recently, after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore—DeCasper's boss repeatedly called for a Senate hearing on body cameras, the use of which, he told CNN, "will help keep more people alive and will help to restore confidence that communities have in law-enforcement officers."
DeCasper says she and her colleagues are now meeting with police, privacy, and community groups to eventually develop "meaningful" legislation related to the cameras' use.
Friends and colleagues close to DeCasper say the smarts that built her successful legal career make her an effective leader on the Hill.
Joe Hack, chief of staff to Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., says DeCasper's positive reputation among Republican staffers is rooted in her ability to balance effectiveness with congeniality. In her dealings, she's able to "weave" in her experience and use the force of her office without alienating people.
After college, DeCasper worked for Sen. Wayne Allard, then went to the University of Michigan Law School. She worked in Colorado's 18th District before leaving law entirely in 2008—a "bad decision," she says, given the job market at the time. She moved east to the Washington area, taking a job at Dulles Airport as a ramp agent—where she was "humbled to the extreme" after years as a top prosecutor—before interviewing for a spot in Scott's House office.
DeCasper and her boss are close: Each says the other is "one of my best friends." Scott says her time as a prosecutor helps her break down complicated subjects so that they're "digestible" to him. She has "the type of vision and discernment that help me serve the people of the country better."
Scott credits DeCasper with drawing the highest Republican participation in the annual Bloody Sunday walk in Selma, Alabama, since the first commemorative march was held in 1998. GOP attendance at the walk historically lags behind that of Democrats, and ahead of Selma's 50th anniversary this year, Scott and Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., tried to close that attendance gap through a GOP-recruitment campaign.
Though most members of Republican congressional leadership did not participate, five senators and 19 representatives from the GOP were there. (By comparison, seven senators and 64 representatives from the Democratic side were scheduled to attend, plus independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.)
Hunter Bates, a former chief of staff for Sen. Mitch McConnell who participates in a chiefs-of-staff Bible study group with DeCasper, says she takes an "intellectual approach" to her work that people respect.
"Washington's full of a lot of folks who kind of blow into a room and underdeliver," Bates says. "And Jennifer is anti-Washington in that regard. Because she comes into a room, she studies the situation and the people and processes it and pursues the right outcome, without a lot of fanfare."
Relationship-building in the office, too, seems to be a priority for DeCasper. She says she actively encourages staffers to pursue better job opportunities as they carry the office's "brand" throughout their careers. She calls it the "Tim Scott pipeline."
But perhaps the name "Jennifer DeCasper pipeline" works, too. Scott says staffers who've left his office maintain close relationships with her.
That "speaks to their confidence in her competence and in her advice," Scott says. "Her instincts are strong and people seem to appreciate her opinion."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Sen. Deb Fischer as a congresswoman.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.