Very few people know more about the Senate than Sharon Soderstrom. Their names are Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell.
After more than three decades working largely in high-level jobs for Republican leaders in the Senate, Soderstrom now is serving as McConnell's chief of staff. She's also the go-to person on Senate procedure and tactics for Republican members and staffers in both chambers.
"She shouldn't just be a part of the top 20 most powerful women in Washington, but she should be number one on the list of the most powerful people in Washington. "¦ And I would include just about every senator in that mix," says Speaker John Boehner's chief of staff Mike Sommers, who says he meets with Soderstrom three to four times a day to discuss House-Senate strategy. "She always has a better sense of what's going to happen in the Senate than just about anybody "¦ not just a better sense, but an ability to maneuver around [it] to get things done."
Soderstrom is one of just nine Republican female chiefs of staff in the Senate and, as the top aide to the new Senate majority leader, she's by far the most powerful.
"You just can't be a part of the Senate without knowing who she is," says former McConnell chief of staff Kyle Simmons, who hired Soderstrom almost a decade ago, and is now a government affairs consultant. "Her breadth of experience is unmatched. If you can find someone who has worked in senior positions for three leaders at really critical times [like Soderstrom has], I'd like to meet them."
The small-town Long Island girl, who grew up on the campus of an all-boys private school where her father served as headmaster, is no newcomer to breaking glass ceilings. Soderstrom was part of the Stony Brook School's second class of female graduates, and the first to be allowed to board on campus.
One of Soderstrom's biggest strengths is the implicit trust between herself and the majority leader. Like McConnell, Soderstrom is an institutionalist, devoted to improving the upper chamber.
During the fiscal cliff crisis of 2012, Soderstrom remembers sitting in the hospital the day after Christmas with her mother, who was sick at the time, when she got a call from McConnell. The then-minority leader said the Senate needed a deal, and soon. His question for Soderstrom, his closest adviser: Was it time for him to get involved?
"He said, 'You know, Sharon, I just don't feel like anyone is really able to talk to anyone else and do you think it's time for me to get involved?' And he did," Soderstrom recalls. "And his clarity and his ability to step in when needed at, you know some considerable cost to him, has been extraordinary. So I really appreciate his leadership. What makes this job easier to me is that I'm a supporter of a boss who's very clear about what he thinks is the right thing to do."
Soderstrom studied English language at the University of Virginia before heading to Washington with a classmate to find a job in the big city. She started out handing out resumes on the Hill, "with blisters on my feet and in tears on the corner," she says, now laughing. At the time, Soderstrom thought she'd stay in Washington for only a year or two.
Soderstrom started out working legislative jobs for then-Sen. Paul Trible of Virginia and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. But it wasn't long before the smart, friendly staffer with an almost preternatural understanding of the Senate caught the eye of leadership. In 1999, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott hired her away from Coats as a senior adviser. She's been the right-hand woman of every Republican leader since.
But while other colleagues have left the Hill for better hours (and better paychecks), Soderstrom has stuck it through. Asked how she's managed to stay in such a high-stress job for so long, Soderstrom jokes: "Don't ask me how I've survived because I do not know."
One benefit is that the work has been far from boring. Over the past three decades, Soderstrom has worked in the minority and the majority; for southerners and northerners; under Democratic and Republican presidents.
"What has ... been fascinating to me is that the office and the desks can be the same, but given the different political alignments, you know, your job changes entirely," Soderstrom says.
One of the hallmarks of Soderstrom's management style is her daily staff meetings, which, unlike many other offices on Capitol Hill, include every member of the office, even the twenty-somethings answering the phones.
"I think that we're all part of the same operation, we all need to have the same goals," Soderstrom says. "I think that it is a very special moment in time to work over here. I want everyone to hear what's going on because I think we're all better at our jobs when we know what each other are doing. And I think it builds a sense of team morale. And I love that the girls out front [who answer phones and greet guests] will hear about the policy issues of the day and hopefully they can kind of learn and grow while they're here."
McConnell's office is incredibly tight-knit, friends and colleagues say, in large part thanks to Soderstrom's leadership. She frequently gives lengthy, personal farewell speeches to departing colleagues, and on her birthday last year, female staffers dressed in black suits to honor (and tease her about) her penchant for wearing a lot of black.
Colleagues also love to joke about the "Hotel Sharon," a reference to Soderstrom's frequent visits from friends and relatives.
"I tell people I made the mistake of buying a bigger house with some guest rooms," Soderstrom says, laughing. "But I do have a large extended family and a lot of people from out of town, so oftentimes I have house guests coming in and it really is a welcome distraction from work all the time."