Every Monday night, Sarah Bolton sits down to do some homework.
These are the days when Bolton, 32, leaves her tidy office in the Hart building at a decent time. By 6:45 p.m., she's tutoring a fourth-grade girl from a low-income family in Washington—a weekly engagement that helps put her job as the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee's Democratic education policy director into perspective.
Sitting down with her student is something she looks forward to every week, and it helps her "remember why I'm doing this." What she's doing is helping to craft the country's education policy.
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Bolton joined Sen. Patty Murray's staff in 2009. Cut to 2015, and Bolton—in her new role as education policy director—is spending weekends and late nights in the office eating pizza with her Republican counterparts as they hash out language for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (or ESEA) reauthorization—the byproduct of months of careful negotiations in the new Congress. On April 16, the bill unanimously passed the Senate HELP Committee, with politicians and stakeholders calling it a step in the right direction.
That's partly a testament to Bolton's ability to balance competing interests, says Charles Barone, the policy director for Education Reform Now, a Washington-based advocacy group.
"Sen. Murray sets the tone for what she wants to do," Barone said, "but it's really up to Sarah to make sure all the staff on the committee are working together toward those goals and that they manage it well. And this iteration of ESEA, the politics were dealt with much more efficiently than in previous attempts by other ranking Democrats."
Her knowledge and clout in the education arena helped produce a product both Democrats and Republicans could support, says Evan Schatz, Murray's HELP Committee staff director.
"She's very well respected and liked by education staffers and all the education stakeholders in town, and so that also helped given how much credibility she has around the issues," he says.
A vote on the Senate floor hasn't been scheduled—though it's a bill Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to consider soon—so Bolton and her education staff of about eight are prepping for amendments, keeping in close contact with their Republican counterparts, and talking with interested parties about how the bill could be improved before it comes to the floor.
"She never stops working," Murray says. "She never stops thinking, and she never stops until she gets a solution, and we just wouldn't be where we [are] without her."
The North Carolina native started on the Hill as a staff assistant on the Senate Budget Committee in 2007 after getting her master's degree in higher-education administration at the University of South Carolina. In her time in Murray's office, Bolton has had an outreach role in the Ryan-Murray budget deal, contacting health care, housing, anti-poverty, and other groups to keep them informed about what sequestration actually meant. Most recently, Bolton played a pivotal role in advancing the No Child Left Behind rewrite to the Senate floor, a task previously marred by partisan squabbling.
Bolton cherishes her work with the Washington state Democrat.
"For me, it's very meaningful to work for a female in the Senate, and particularly one that I think is just so well respected by male colleagues and female colleagues, and Republicans and Democrats," Bolton said.
She sees herself staying on the Hill and continuing to focus on education policy, an issue for which she has not only cultivated a deep reserve of knowledge, but also folders, subfolders, and sub-subfolders of email archives dating back years on education and other issues.
"I am very organized," Bolton says with a laugh. "My coworkers all make fun of me."
A glimpse around her office reveals more about Bolton than just her filing habits. There's a picturesque photo she took of a Washington state landscape. There's a copy of an education bill she worked on with Murray. And near the door, there's a framed piece of notebook paper filled with an elementary-schooler's scribble. Upon closer examination, it's a school assignment Bolton completed as a young child, responding to the prompt, "If I had a magic hat."
And if elementary schooler Bolton had a magic hat, she would want to be president. "If there was a female president," her essay reads, "maybe then men wouldn't think they were so great and also to show that women can be whatever they want."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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