By Chuck Conconi
Washington Life Magazine
The Vice President’s domestic policy advisor puts her carefully honed legal and political skills to work in the battle for health care reform
The first time I met Terrell McSweeny she was a toy soldier in the Washington Ballet’s performance of Nutcracker at the Lisner Auditorium. I was a reporter for Channel 5 and had reluctantly agreed to interview her despite the fact that I considered children to be largely unresponsive in such situations. Ten-year-old McSweeny was self-possessed and articulate as she sat on the lip of the stage in her heavy makeup, her legs dangling, ignoring the camera.
Twenty-four years later we are sitting at Sesto Senso over plates of pasta, but now she is domestic policy advisor to Vice President Joe Biden with the additional title of special assistant to President Obama. She is just as self-possessed and articulate as ever.
Lithe, tawny, and now a bit taller, McSweeny explains her lifelong interest in the political system. “It was impossible for me to grow up in Washington and not be fascinated by it. My parents emphasized that working in politics you can make a big difference in people’s lives. It is a passion I shared, listening as they talked about their experiences working with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation.”
Her socially prominent parents, Bill and Dorothy McSweeny, are active in the arts community, serve on numerous boards, and are involved in Democratic Party politics. Bill, a retired oil man, has served as a trustee of the Kennedy Center and Dorothy was chairman of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities during the administration of Mayor Anthony Williams.
“We always talked about international affairs and politics at the dinner table and she asked great questions,” her father says, adding that her favorite senator was Joe Biden, going back to the days when Terrell served as a page for Sen. Al Gore, a longtime family friend. Bill McSweeny sees her as playing a significant role in Democratic Party politics some day, although not necessarily running for elective office. One of her biggest assets, he says, “is the ability to keep a political secret.”
Terrell McSweeny quickly looks at her Blackberry, then apologizes and puts it away as she relates how her political interests focused during her junior year at Holton Arms when she became the first woman to be chief of the Senate pages. (She says that Biden was also the favorite of her entire page class)
Abby Saffold, who was secretary to the Senate majority, remembers McSweeny well: “When I hear her name I think that if I ever had a daughter I would want her to be like Terrell. She is smart, a quick study with attention to detail, and funny.”
After graduating from Harvard, McSweeny moved to Hillsboro, W.Va., population approximately 300, to help set up a the High Rocks Educational Association, a non-profit group that worked to get teenage girls to stay in school. It was there that she met her husband, Ralph Burns, and where they own a farm where they retreat from Washington with their 16-month-old son Warren Maverick. Her husband works on policy issues in the District’s city administrator’s office.
In the spring of 2000, McSweeny went to Nashville to work on the Gore campaign, which she says renewed her interest in politics and social justice issues. After working on the bitter recount battle in Florida, she decided to return to Washington to attend Georgetown University Law Center on the advice of former Secretary of State Warren Christopher (who had headed the Gore efforts).
After Georgetown, she joined the Washington law firm of O’Melveny & Myers but took time off to be the deputy political director of retired Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential primary bid. She was back at the law firm when she learned in 2005 that Sen. Biden was looking for a policy director. Wise to how Washington works, McSweeny say she “lobbied for the job with friends and contacts and got it.”
McSweeny’s career path was focused. When Biden entered the primaries in 2007, she was eight weeks pregnant when she took time off from her senate position to fly to Iowa to work on his campaign. She left her Senate job permanently when it became known that Obama would select Biden as his running mate.
Significantly involved in current health care reform proposals, McSweeny argues that “the economy is going to improve and I don’t think health care is in trouble. Nobody said it was going to be easy.” Working for the Vice President, she says, is a challenging experience. “He knows how to ask the right questions and … wants to talk about the issues. There is a lot of back and forth with the staff. You aren’t just asked to write a memo, he reads it and asks tough questions.”
“I’ve depended on Terrell’s domestic policy expertise in the Senate, on the campaign trail and now in the White House,” Biden says. “She’s smart, she’s compassionate, and she’s tough. She’s also a great person, and one of my most trusted advisors.”
When she has free time from her demanding schedule, McSweeny says she spends it with her husband and son. As for movies, it’s pretty much “On Demand” at home. (Recently they watched The Reader.) She speaks of loving the classics and saw the recent Shakespeare Theatre production of King Lear directed by her brother Ethan, who has a national reputation as a brilliant theatrical director. Also part of her high-achieving clan are a stepbrother, William McSweeny III, a judge in Cambridge, Mass., and a stepsister, Kate McSweeny, a lawyer in the Washington offices of Chadbourne & Parke.
Terrell McSweeny recently read Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope – “a fascinating read,” she notes, “about the first 100 days of a new administration.” The book she wishes she had been able to get a hold of before taking the White House post is the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s monumental study of the Johnson presidency, which is scheduled for publication in 2012.
At 34, McSweeny is a political veteran with a bemused view of “a number of young people who came into politics because of Obama and Biden but have never been on a losing campaign.” She has been in both places and has learned valuable lessons that make her a power broker to watch.