Emily Reynolds: A Secretary With Charm, Efficiency

Posted August 31, 2004 at 2:42pm

Emily Reynolds presses her index finger to her thin red lips and furrows her brow. She’s thinking. Trying to come up with something, anything, that might put her in league with some of her more colorful predecessors as Secretary of the Senate.

Does she, for instance, possess an insatiable yen for penguin collectibles, as one former secretary was known to have? Or does she use her office as a de-facto diner for capital city powerbrokers, as did one powerful Truman-era secretary who was also admired for the effectiveness of his tomato juice hangover antidote?

“No, I feel so boring,” laughs Reynolds, who is 5-foot-2 and has eyes of blue. “Quirky, yes, and boring.”

But ask Madame Secretary about her schedule — which on a recent Thursday included everything from a reception with teen idol Hilary Duff to a meeting on Capitol Visitor Center parking issues — and the story changes dramatically.

“A day in the life is really fascinating because it can change very much on a daily basis, which is one of the most interesting things about the job,” Reynolds says.

As the chamber’s chief administrative officer, Reynolds oversees 26 departments and a staff of about 240. Her days, which typically stretch to 13 hours and beyond, begin around 8 a.m., with “quiet time” to answer e-mails and process paperwork. Reynolds or the assistant secretary, Mary Jones, then attends the opening of each day’s session. After that, it’s off to meetings and more meetings, interrupted only by lunch, and then more meetings.

“I’m trying to think what I’ve done this week, which is all a blur at this point in time,” she says, jumping up and crossing her capacious, apartment-sized office en route to her computer screen. Reynolds pulls up her schedule, then scrolls through a litany of luncheons, receptions and, predictably, more meetings.

It has been 20 months since Reynolds, then chief of staff to Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), was unexpectedly elevated to Secretary of the Senate by her boss, who had just been named Majority Leader. In filling the chamber’s top patronage post, Reynolds — a veteran GOP Congressional and campaign aide — has established herself as one of the body’s hardest working, yet largely unsung, movers and shakers, say Congressional insiders.

“She is just the consummate professional,” says Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle. “She doesn’t believe in tooting her own horn.”

“I’m on my third secretary since becoming clerk,” says Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl. “I’ve had a Democrat, a Republican and now Emily, so it’s not a partisan thing, but I’ve never dealt with someone so constructive in trying to develop solutions and get it done rather than waging war.”

Democrats, too, sing Reynolds’ praises.

“I think Emily has carried out that longstanding tradition” of bipartisanship in the Secretary of the Senate’s office “very well,” said Reynolds’ predecessor, Jeri Thomson, now a consultant to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “She cares deeply about the operation of the Senate … and does an outstanding job of carrying out the programs” of those that came before.

With the CVC set for completion in 2006, Reynolds spends nearly half of each work week dealing with a spectrum of visitor center-related issues, helping coordinate the allocation, design, aesthetics and utilization of the subterranean structure’s 580,000 square feet.

“We spend a lot of time sitting in a room talking about what will the visitor see and feel when they come through security,” says Trandahl, emphasizing the influence Reynolds has on the discussions. “What will they see and feel as they are waiting to get tickets to the film? She always goes back to sort of what is the Tennessee visitor to D.C. going to see.”

Specifically, Trandahl points to Reynolds’ advocacy on behalf of “balance” in the approach to security — one that takes into account the concerns of ordinary families, some of whom might need to bring along diaper bags, bottles and other child-related necessities. “That’s a typical Emily kinder, gentler approach,” he says.

“She is in every sense of the word a real consensus-builder,” Pickle says of Reynolds’ work on the visitor center project. “She believes in teamwork and is able to pull all the different groups with different priorities together. … There’s a tendency … to be a bit of a competitive nature on the part of House and Senate folks.”

Reynolds — who took office after the emergencies of Sept. 11, 2001, and the anthrax-laced mail attacks on Capitol Hill — plays a key role in the ongoing effort to ensure that the Senate is able to carry out its constitutional functions in times of crisis.

“She’s had the opportunity to take a look at what we did and improve it where it needed to be and expand it where need be,” says Thomson, who called Reynolds’ performance on continuity issues “tremendous.”

The rest of Reynolds’ portfolio runs the gamut from the Senate Page School and the Senate Stationary Room to the Public Records Office and the Chief Counsel for Employment. She is also responsible for coordinating two major technology initiatives related to the management of financial and legislative information.

“My role … should be simply making the trains run on time,” says Reynolds, who is not above wandering the Capitol halls checking in on various offices and scouring the corridors for burned-out light bulbs.

“What’s fascinating [is that] from the first secretary appointed in 1789 to today the three fundamental premises of what we do remain very much the same,” Reynolds adds. “And that’s the legislative piece, from the clerks to the Congressional Record; the financial arm of the Senate, disbursing, paying both our clerks and our vendors; and the third piece … the administrative piece.”

About an hour into the interview, an aide interrupts with a folder of nominations to sign, which offers Reynolds the chance to show off her John Hancock flourish. It’s a signature that appears on all legislation passed by the Senate, as well as treaties, nominations and the paychecks of some 6,500 Senate employees.

“My first day after my swearing-in on the seventh of January [2003], I had to sign my name for disbursing of checks,” she recalls. “I had to sign my name for an autopen. You know, that was … a shock to one’s system.” The self-described VIP legislative correspondent sees irony in her late mother’s complaint that her daughter’s “handwriting had gone from bad to worse” over the years.

Reynolds, a 48-year-old Nashville native, first came to Capitol Hill in 1977 as a college intern for then-Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.). Two years after graduating from Stephens College, she returned as a special assistant to the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Baker. Stints on the Senate campaigns of the late Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and then-Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) were followed by a turn as deputy director of national coalitions for the unsuccessful re-election bid of the first President Bush in 1992.

One year later, Frist, a heart surgeon and political novice, tapped her to be deputy campaign manager and finance director for his inaugural Senate bid. The rest, as they say, is history.

“In so many ways [the Frists] really are my extended family,” says Reynolds, who over the past decade has served as Frist’s state director, re-election campaign manager and chief of staff.

Today, Reynolds continues that service from her third-floor Capitol office — a space formerly used as the Radio-TV Press Gallery and a one-time committee room. It has a direct view of both the Supreme Court and the ongoing CVC construction. Among its reminders of the Volunteer State is a painting of Andrew Jackson, the Tennessean who served as the seventh president; a watercolor of her beloved Smoky Mountains; and a photo of Frist and his wife, Karyn, on a stopover in rural northeastern Tennessee, yukking it up with a hog named Bubba.

“I’m very proud to be a Tennessean,” Reynolds beams.

Reynolds says she’ll likely stay in her present role through 2006, assuming that the Republicans maintain their majority and that “Sen. Frist is willing to put up with me.”

Beyond that, Reynolds, whose engaging speaking style is every bit what one would expect from the 1974 National Champion in Girls Extemporaneous Speaking, would appear to be a natural fit for a campaign of her own — a point not lost on Republicans in the Volunteer State, where she is “very well known and very well thought of,” says Mark Tipps, a Nashville lawyer who served as Frist’s first chief of staff. (Reynolds’ political connections reach to the White House as well as Congress: She was the first person to introduce her “good friend” Karl Rove, now President Bush’s chief political guru, to Frist.)

“I’ve always thought she’d make a good candidate,” says Tipps, a Bush Pioneer. “I’ve talked to her about doing something like that.”

Frist, responding to e-mailed questions, calls her “the type of person you’d want in public service.”

“When I return home one of the first questions I’m always asked is ‘How’s Emily doing?’” he says.

“She’s well known around party activists … [and] well liked by Republicans,” agrees Ed Cromer, editor of The Tennessee Journal, a political newsletter. However, Cromer says he’s yet to see any signs that she is being seriously considered as a future candidate.

And Reynolds herself maintains she doesn’t see a run for elected office in her crystal ball: “One never says no in life, but I do not envision myself ever running for office.”

Meanwhile, the petite blonde, who on this warm summer day is decked in a patterned black pantsuit and red leather heels, says that more than two decades after first arriving in the chamber, she’s more than content to devote herself to the seemingly Sisyphean task “of looking for better ways to do business” in the Senate.

As for Reynolds’ description of herself as boring — Frist says that she is far from it.

While Reynolds is “surprisingly shy,” Frist says, she is also “a talented singer” who has “sung a few times at the Grand Ole Opry.”

When pressed for details, Reynolds later concedes that she appeared there on three occasions “20 or 25 years ago.” In fact, she once “had four cuts” on an independently produced album. She even performed at Mary Matalin and James Carville’s 1993 White House engagement party.

But don’t expect her to return to the stage anytime soon.

“In my 10 years with Bill Frist I haven’t been on the road much performing,” she laughs. “If you notice, I haven’t given up my daytime job.”