The Newcomers: Learning Lessons the Rahm Way

Posted July 29, 2009 at 3:13pm

When Sean O’Brien recently took his place as chief of staff for Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), his surroundings were awfully familiar. It was only a few years earlier that he had been in the same office, although back then he was folding letters rather than managing an entire Congressional staff.

In 2003, O’Brien started his career on Capitol Hill as an unpaid intern in then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s (D-Ill.) office, back in the days when President Barack Obama’s now-chief of staff was representing Illinois’ 5th district. He used to fold letters not far from where his personal office is today.

“I joke sometimes that in five years now I’ve moved three feet,— O’Brien said.

Unlike many interns, O’Brien was not a fresh-faced college kid looking to break into life on Capitol Hill. He had worked in various IT and Web-based jobs for eight years before deciding it was time to jump into the political world.

One would think that working for Emanuel would be an intimidating first job, but O’Brien said that’s not the case. He said Emanuel was “a great boss— as O’Brien worked his way up from intern to staff assistant to legislative assistant and speechwriter.

“He’s got this public persona of being very aggressive and he’s really not,— O’Brien said. “He’s really a quiet, thoughtful person. He’s just direct. I think the country is very fortunate to have him in the position he is in.—

O’Brien moved on from Emanuel’s office after the 2006 elections to help Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) on his transition team. He signed on as Shuler’s legislative director and stayed with the office for two and a half years before deciding to return to his old stomping grounds.

Although O’Brien is originally from New York City, Chicago became a sort of second home for him. He graduated from Northwestern University in 1996 and worked for various companies there before moving to Washington. When Quigley won a special election to fill Emanuel’s seat, O’Brien was eager to help him make the transition. The Congressman then asked him to be chief of staff, and O’Brien was back where he started — sort of.

O’Brien said it has been a little strange, going from working with the rest of the legislative team to being chief of staff.

“It’s a little bit of an adjustment for me to not be back there now,— he said.

O’Brien said he is in the office more often than he used to be, as he is coordinating what is going on with the staff rather than attending briefings and hearings. Since coming to the Hill, he has also put on the back burner his fledgling comedy career, although he has performed a one-man improv show in the Capital Fringe Festival the past two years.

“It’s amazing how the day just goes by,— he said. “That’s the one constant I’ve had in every job on the Hill. You sort of look up and the day is gone.—

One other thing that hasn’t changed is O’Brien’s addiction to his BlackBerry. He’s been fairly attached since he began working on the Hill, although these days he has reason to pull himself away every once in awhile.

“I’ve got a baby now and she almost instinctively goes for the BlackBerry,— he said. “I think she recognizes it as competing for attention and she just goes and grabs it out of my hand.—