With a background in journalism, Donelle Harder has carved out a niche for herself in Sen. James Inhofes office, focusing on social media and press relations.
Donelle Harder is pursuing a master’s degree, volunteers on weekends and recently moved from a position in the House to the Senate. Her greatest source of pride, however, is not her own career, but her efforts to advance the careers of other women on the Hill.
Since she first worked in the office of Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas), Harder has been part of the Women’s Congressional Staff Association.
When she began working for Marchant, Harder was one of two female staffers. She soon became the only one.
That made clear to her the necessity of networking. Since being elected to the executive board of the WCSA, Harder attends events, manages the Twitter account and helps to organize the annual leadership conference, which pairs younger women with mentors.
“It’s been refreshing, with just how divided Congress is, to see that on a relational level you can still have friendships,” Harder said, adding that she has “created great friendships on both sides of the aisle.”
Now serving as press secretary for Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Harder says she did not set out to pursue a career in politics, although she was high school student body president in her native Texas. “Politics found me,” she said.
She pursued a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Baylor University because she felt that journalism is “a way to serve the general public.”
Harder, who deals with the press on a daily basis, explained that journalists have “a great responsibility” when “going to a place other people can’t afford to go or don’t have the time to visit.”
She experienced that firsthand when she traveled to India during college to assist in a caste reconciliation project. She wrote a column for Baylor’s newspaper about her experiences.
“I got [blowback] for the column,” Harder remembered, “I got people saying I was lying about the caste system. It just further confirmed to me that the column needed to be written.”
After graduating, she moved briefly to New York City and then to a public relations firm in Annandale, Va., which worked with several elected officials.
The transition from that spot to Marchant’s office felt natural to Harder, who served as the Congressman’s first online communications adviser.
“I was skeptical of social media at first, but I have seen its incredible power,” Harder said.
During Harder’s tenure in Marchant’s office, the Congressman was rated the ninth most influential Member on Twitter by Edelman PR. Harder does not take all the credit for the accolade, but she notes that she was “very strategic” with her tweets.
Two months ago, Harder switched chambers to join Inhofe’s staff, where she will combine the skills she honed in the House and working in public relations: utilizing social media and working with the press.
Above all, the skill that most interests Harder is, as she puts it, simply “helping people.”
Her work at the WCSA fits well with the trend that has driven Harder’s career thus far. “Helping people is the reason I’ve been drawn to politics,” she said about the WCSA. “We’re all here for the same thing, which is to help further the next generation of women, even if we don’t agree on policy.”
Harder also volunteers on weekends at the church at which her husband serves as an associate pastor.
Harder is progressing slowly but surely toward a master’s in social work by taking one class a semester at Catholic University. She says the study of social work provides valuable insight for her current job, and she rejects the stereotype of Republicans as not caring about the poor.
“We strongly believe there’s a path to empowering them that doesn’t restrict their freedoms,” Harder said.
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Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.