The woman who could bring Maine values to the White House

Ann O'Leary | Ralph Alswang/Flickr

Ann O’Leary | Ralph Alswang/Flickr

The old farm house on Main Street in Orono where my brother (who also happens to be my state representative) and my sister-in-law live has a rather fascinating political history. It is formerly the home of the late Charles “Chick” O’Leary, the colorful leader of Maine’s AFL-CIO and one of the state’s greatest champions for working men and women. It’s also where his daughter, Ann O’Leary, grew up.

If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the right to return to the White House in the election next week, Ann O’Leary will almost certainly be going with her. O’Leary served as policy advisor to Clinton when she was First Lady, was her legislative director in the Senate, and was senior policy advisor for her campaign, before being retasked as co-executive director of the Clinton transition, the team managing the personnel and policy logistics of a potential Clinton presidency (knock on wood.)

In an administration, it is rumored that she could take on the role of Deputy Chief of Staff (Josh Lyman, in the parlance of the TV show The West Wing).

This is a big deal, not just because it’s interesting whenever a Mainer gets their salty hands on the levers of power, but because of the issues and values that O’Leary has stood for throughout her public career.

O’Leary followed in her father’s footsteps as an advocate for workers and families. When not serving in government, she has worked at and founded progressive non-profits focused on promoting early childhood education, improving labor protections and advancing caregiving for the old and young. Last year she was named one of Politico’s Top 50 visionaries for her work to advance the economic interests of women.

While usually working in the background, hers has been a consistent voice for fairness and justice. Two-decade-old, newly-public documents from Bill Clinton’s White House, for instance, show O’Leary pushed for an executive order banning federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. That would have been quite the step for the administration that signed the Defense of Marriage Act and implemented “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” In fact, it was still a big deal when President Obama finally signed such an order just two years ago.

More recently another, more unsavory, release of documents has also given some insight into O’Leary’s work.  Russian government hackers were attempting to discredit Clinton and buoy Donald Trump’s electoral fortunes when they stole the emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and released them through Wikileaks, but for me they had the exact opposite effect. Reading through them reveals that Clinton’s circle is made up of smart, dedicated (and yes, cautious) aides like O’Leary who obviously care deeply about social and economic justice.

Emails ostensibly from her account picked up in the hack show her weighing in on issues as diverse as debt-free college education, supporting the fight for a $15 minimum wage, strengthening the Affordable Care Act, addressing the heroin epidemic, advancing education and children’s health care, standing against big Pharma over rising prescription drug prices, closing the pay gap for women, combating climate change and even outflanking Sen. Bernie Sanders on paid family and medical leave.

From some of her additions to Clinton’s speeches, we can even see which of her words have passed the candidate’s lips.

“Paid family leave; schedules that are fair and predictable; higher wages so you don’t have to work two jobs to make ends meet, so you can be home at night with your kids – these aren’t just challenges for women, they’re challenges for America,” is an O’Leary line.

So is: “Enough is enough. It’s time we recognize as a nation that we have a quiet epidemic on our hands. Plain and simple, drug addiction is a disease, not a moral failing—and we must treat it as such.”

In one of my favorite emails, O’Leary declares herself the campaign’s “resident Mainer” and fixes Clinton’s introductory remarks to a gathering in the Pine Tree State, correcting a line about “the farmers of the valley” to “the potato farmers up in The County.”

Among the many tragedies of Donald Trump’s campaign is that the hard work of Clinton’s policy staff and her announcement of groundbreaking progressive policies, often influenced by O’Leary, have been given short shrift in the media and the public mind.

What’s most clear from O’Leary’s public record (and once-private emails) is her progressive focus and pragmatic drive. She doesn’t just write about the policies she believes will advance the values she holds, but about how exactly to enact them.  She’s ready to help chart a legislative path on issues like paid family leave and caregiver credits as well as to push for changes through executive order in areas like wages and worker’s rights.

These fights, if she gets a chance to help wage them, will be a continuation of her own and her father’s long legacy here in Maine, forged in the crucible of paper mill closures and a changing economy bringing uncertainty for working families.

This is the vision and these are exactly the qualities that Clinton’s administration will need to succeed should the former Secretary of State win the presidency after a bitter electoral battle and immediately face, at the very least, a hostile House of Representatives.

While Clinton’s campaign usually tries to avoid commenting about potential transition plans (lest they seem overconfident), they were happy to acknowledge O’Leary’s influence:

“We’re very proud that Mainer Ann O’Leary has been named to Hillary Clinton’s transition team. Ann’s nationally recognized and deep expertise in advocating on behalf of children and families, including her role in strengthening early childhood education nationwide, is an incredible asset to the team and a reflection of Hillary Clinton’s commitment to ensuring every child has the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential,” said Hillary for Maine State Director Jeremy Kennedy.

“Ann’s past work with the campaign has shaped pivotal policies from expanding access to affordable healthcare to paid family leave, which will continue to be major priorities of Hillary Clinton’s administration.”

Mike Tipping

About Mike Tipping

Mike is Maine's longest-writing political blogger and explores state politics and policy with a focus on analysis and explanation. He works at the Maine People's Alliance and Maine People's Resource Center.