Features

From College Hill to Pennsylvania Avenue

By
Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, April 26, 2012

 

Kate Brandt ’07 first encountered the President of the United States when she heard the sound of a basketball dribbling in the hallway. Brandt, special advisor for energy to the Secretary of the Navy, was attending a meeting of President Obama’s transition team when the president decided to make an impromptu appearance – basketball in hand.

“He thanked us personally for the work we were doing, and that was very nice,” she said, recalling how struck she was by Obama’s enthusiasm for basketball during the meeting several years ago.

Public and nonprofit sector positions are frequently pursued by seniors. And for some alums – particularly those now serving in the Obama administration ­- the pathway of public service can eventually lead to high-ranking positions in the federal government.

 

An extensive network

Hundreds of alums work in the federal government, both in the United States and around the world, wrote Todd Andrews ’83, vice president for alumni relations, in an email to The Herald. It is difficult to state the exact number of alums serving in the Obama administration, but the majority are concentrated in Washington, D.C., he wrote, and dozens of alums serve as political appointees nominated by the president in the administration.

For Thomas Perez ’83, assistant attorney general for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the choice to enter public service was natural.

“I believe life is not a dress rehearsal,” Perez said, “and my parents taught me that to whom much is given, much is expected. Public service is a wonderful way to give back.”

Perez worked both in the Sharpe Refectory and at the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, the state’s antidiscrimination law enforcement agency, to put himself through college, he said. Perez noted that his work at the commission exposed him to people who had been denied equal opportunities, shaping his interest in becoming a lawyer.

 

An ‘enormous privilege’

Jason Bordoff ’94, associate director for energy and climate change at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said his experience at Brown piqued his interest in politics. As a general manager for WBRU, Bordoff reported firsthand on political news in Rhode Island.

“Eventually, I realized what excited me most about journalism was the access it afforded me to the political process,” Bordoff said, explaining his decision to enter public service.

Bordoff works with other members of the president’s staff to formulate energy and environmental policies. He said he is particularly proud of helping the Obama administration reduce carbon emissions, develop clean energy sources and set fuel efficiency standards.

“The best part of the job is the enormous privilege of being in the White House,” Bordoff said. “You’re always faced with new issues and new challenges.”

As the head of the DOJ’s civil rights division, Perez manages an office charged with enforcing laws related to disability rights and equal opportunities in education, employment, housing and voting. His division works to protect equal voting rights, monitor police departments to ensure compliance with antidiscrimination laws and safeguard fair housing opportunities.

“We inherited a division that had some serious morale problems from the previous administration,” Perez said, citing the restoration of office employees’ confidence in the integrity of their division as a highlight of his tenure. Other accomplishments under Perez’s leadership include increased prosecution of human traffickers and a successful discrimination lawsuit against Countrywide Financial Corporation. The loan company was charged with rejecting qualified African-American and Latino applicants’ requests for home ownership loans based on race. “We had the largest fair-lending settlement in history,” he said.

 

Preparing for the fast track

Perez described his time at Brown as instrumental in giving him a broader worldview and necessary critical thinking skills. “Brown helped me to develop many of the values I have today,” he said. “I grew up in a very homogenous environment, and Brown was the antithesis of that.”

Scott Harris ’73 P’15, who worked as general counsel to the U.S. Department of Energy until March 2011, said his undergraduate years had a formative impact on his decision to enter public service. He said his involvement in student government and in public service activities molded his career focus, as did the student body’s service-oriented culture.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Perez moved to Washington, D.C. to combine public service with a career in the private sector. Perez also served in the Clinton administration as a counsel in the U.S. Department of Commerce and as chief of the international bureau of the Federal Communications Commission.

Harris attributed his success at the DOE to improvements in four key areas – making the department more accessible to the public, posting the agency’s regulatory decisions online to increase transparency, making the department more efficient with limited resources and cracking down on companies that violated federal energy efficiency standards.

Stephanie Weiner ’95, who worked with Harris as a senior legal advisor to the DOE until May 2011, agreed that enforcing federal energy standards was one of the Obama administration’s key environmental victories. “We were a crucial part of the whole regulatory process,” she said.

Weiner double concentrated in economics and political science before beginning her career in public service. She worked at the Congressional Budget Office and the FCC before joining the Obama administration. A job in the federal government entails certain challenges, particularly oversight – special permission is required for small actions like making changes to a website, Weiner said. But the benefit of serving the public good outweighs this frustration, she added.

Working a fast-paced job for the federal government can also interfere with personal time, Bordoff noted. “I don’t get to spend as much time with my kids as I’d like to,” he said. “You have to put your life on hold.”

Harris described working in the Obama administration as a special experience because of the president’s talent for resolving tensions between different government agencies. “I thought he would be a wonderful president, and I believe he has been a wonderful president,” Harris said.

Perez shared the view that Obama deserves credit for managing the federal go
vernment at a difficult time. “He inherited so many challenges and didn’t have the luxury of saying we’d focus on one at a time,” he said.

 

Brunonians and basketball

Like Brandt, Perez said he was struck by the president’s passion for basketball. “He had about six basketballs in his office when I first met him,” Perez said. “I think everybody needs an opportunity to escape from time to time from the remarkable pressures of the job.”

Harris said one frustrating part of a federal government career is the slow pace of change in the bureaucracy. “I’ve never worked in a large organization, whether in the public sector or the private sector, where I didn’t feel there were organizational obstructions to getting things done,” he said. But Harris added that the Obama administration is more efficient than most people believe and that bureaucratic obstacles, while irritating, can play a positive role by allowing the public to comment on proposed policy changes.

In addition to domestic policy jobs, Brunonians fill many national security positions. Brandt concentrated in international relations and served on the Undergraduate Council of Students while at Brown. Like Harris, she said her experience in student government spiked her interest in public service.

“When I was at Brown, I imagined I’d be more at a think tank and be working on policy from the outside, so it’s really exciting and rewarding to have a direct impact on policies,” Brandt said.

In her current position, Brandt advises the Navy to help it reach its goal of sourcing half of its energy from fossil fuel alternatives by 2020. She said one of her proudest moments in the administration was her service as policy director of a report issued by the Secretary of the Navy on the status of the Gulf Coast’s economic recovery after the 2010 BP oil spill.

Brandt said partisan polarization in Washington poses a major obstacle to progress for the Obama administration and a discouraging trend for functioning government. “It’s incredibly frustrating to see how polarized Capitol Hill is today, especially on issues like energy security that should not be partisan.”

For many alums in the federal government, the value of a career in public service outweighs the drawback of forgoing greater earnings in the private sector. “The non-monetary rewards have been priceless,” Perez said. “It’s important not to get cynical.”

Weiner voiced a similar sentiment, noting that a public sector stint is even valuable to workers looking to eventually return to the private sector. “It can be the case that you go into it and love it and stay for 30 years, or it can be part of a larger career,” she said.

“When you measure yourself at the end of your life, you want to measure yourself in the lives you improved and not necessarily the amount in your bank account,” Perez said.

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