In her first stint in a majority leader’s office, Sharon Soderstrom, chief of staff to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, used to sit quietly in the back of the chamber watching the floor.
Her unassuming presence belied the significance of her work.
“If she would see a couple of members talking where one maybe had taken a position that I didn’t agree with as leader and talking to one that I thought was with us, she’d come let me know that there was a conversation going on and I’d better get over there and find out what was happening,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Lott had hired her away from Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., in 1999 to be a senior policy adviser in his leader’s office.
And it was her ability to read the ebb and flow of the Senate that earned Soderstrom senior positions in two other consecutive Republican leadership offices.
Now as McConnell’s right hand, Soderstrom will play a major role in the operation of the Senate and every piece of legislation that comes to the floor in the next Congress.
The Kentucky Republican appointed Soderstrom chief in late 2010, making her the highest ranking female aide in Congress.
“Sharon is brilliant," McConnell said in a statement. "She has a deep understanding of the Senate, she’s an absolute delight to work with and I can’t imagine anybody I’d rather have running point as we begin our new majority.”
She's notoriously press averse and declined to be interviewed for this article.
As chief of staff in the Republican majority, she will have a broad portfolio that entails office and personnel responsibilities, while making sure the entire enterprise is working at a high level.
Soderstrom will also help the GOP develop and settle on strategy, as she did during the debate in McConnell’s office over whether to call Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. during the fiscal cliff talks at the end of 2012. Biden and McConnell ended up brokering the deal that averted going over the cliff.
“That was clearly a big decision that altered the trajectory of that negotiation,” said Rohit Kumar, who previously served as deputy chief of staff for McConnell and who is now at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “It was a contentious decision discussed amongst the senior staff ... and if she had said, ‘No, that’s a bad idea,’ it would have carried great weight in the leader’s mind.”
Soderstrom is also keen at knowing how senators might vote and anticipating how events may be resolved.
“I used to describe the Senate as a living, breathing creature and it has a pulse and it has a tempo to it,” Lott said. “Not a lot of people sense that or get a feeling of about what’s about to happen on an issue and she’s really good at that.”
Soderstrom was initially overlooked when she was searching for work on Capitol Hill, according to Coats.
“When I was in the House of Representatives, she first came to my office just after graduating from [the University of Virginia], in three years, by the way, instead of four, and the biggest mistake I made, because I had filled up my staff, was not finding a place for Sharon,” Coats said.
She eventually got a job with Sen. Paul Trible, R-Va., according to Coats, who got his opportunity to hire her as a legislative director in 1990, in his first stint in the Senate. “I tried to remedy my mistake,” Coats said. Soderstrom rose to chief of staff.
Soderstrom served a two-year stint as Republican staff director of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before being hired in 2004 as deputy chief of staff under Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who was elected majority leader after Lott. McConnell first hired her as his deputy two years later.
Her longevity stands out in a Senate where there’s been much turnover among staff and senators.
“She has a perspective that rivals that of senators in terms of her longevity,” Kumar said. “In that world having somebody who’s been there for a longer period of time” lends “an important perspective to the institution ... and it allows her to be an ever-more effective chief of staff to the leader.”
Kyle Simmons, who served as McConnell’s chief of staff before Soderstrom, said she was so important that when McConnell first put his leadership team together, “We started by recruiting Sharon first and then building around her.”
"She was that important and that experienced and had performed at a very high level in previous leader offices," Simmons said, "[so] we felt [she] would give us a running start to be effective from day one.”
Simmons said Soderstrom has the three pillars needed to be successful in the job: the trust of McConnell, the respect of the conference and the trust of her fellow staffers, “who rely on her judgment and most importantly her experience.”
Soderstrom is also known as a quick study of the myriad policy issues that come through the leader’s office.
“In the leader’s office you have to be an expert on everything; everybody is going to come through the front door with whatever policy matter they have and expect you to up to speed on it and understand where they are coming from and she is so good at that,” said David Schiappa, who was secretary for the minority under McConnell and now is at the Duberstein Group.
Also known as a great boss, particularly to younger staff, Soderstrom typically lets co-workers go home on holidays to be with their family, while she stays behind and minds the office.
“Just from a personal standpoint, she takes a great interest in others' lives up there,” Schiappa said. “When we were going to be there late ... her first thoughts to me was I’ve got to make sure [my staff] get out of here ... she was concerned about the people.”
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