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Long Way From Humble

Jacques Purvis Finds His Way On Senate Floor

Growing up in small Humble, Texas, Jacques Purvis felt like an outsider who could find a sense of himself only through playing sports.

Today, he’s a Senate floor assistant in the one of the least diverse places in Washington, and still in some ways an outsider who is seeking a way to fit in.

Purvis, 26, is one of two African-Americans working on the Senate floor.

In fact, Purvis was the first — and for much of the time he was there, the only — black staffer to work in the Democratic Cloakroom. Calling his August 2006 to January 2008 Cloakroom tenure “a bright spot” in his career, he said he felt privileged every day to work closely with the Democratic Senators.

He’s a long way from Humble (pronounced “Umble”). Back home, Purvis could not recall ever seeing a black attorney, doctor, prominent businessman, let alone Washington’s politicians and lobbyists. But here in the nation’s capital, Purvis realized that black officials were everywhere, and that opened his eyes to his own potential.

“When I came to the nation’s capital, I was in cultural shock. I saw so many other individuals that were well-read. It pushed me. It was the first time in my life that I was considered just a individual, not just a black individual,” he said.

But now as a self-described “lieutenant of the floor,” Purvis monitors what happens on the Senate floor, to ensure that the legislative process runs as smoothly as possible and that the rights of Democratic Senators to offer bills and amendments are protected. He also provides a brief description of pending legislation that is on the floor, so that Members know what they are voting on.

Although he works under the watchful eyes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Lula Davis, the Democratic majority secretary, he serves under the Democratic Policy Committee.

In fact, Reid was one of the first Members who helped to push Purvis into a political career. While he was an undergraduate at Howard University, Purvis had a 2004 internship with Reid.

The Nevada Democrat, who at the time was the Minority Whip, had established an internship partnership with Howard in 2001 to attract minority students and expose them to Capitol Hill.

Although Purvis said he had few responsibilities as an intern, he did get to meet foreign dignitaries, high-ranking public officials and other Washington types.

But Purvis left most of his kind words for Reid, whom he praised as his mentor, for giving him several opportunities to climb the Congressional ladder. He also noted that both men played competitive sports in their younger years and grew up from humble beginnings. Reid boxed back in Nevada; Purvis played football and basketball.

“Sen. Reid and I are so similar and that’s what makes him my mentor. He’s a fighter. Every day we’re fighting to be the best and to succeed. We fight to make this a better place,” Purvis said.

Reid returned the favor, expressing his deep appreciation for Purvis’ loyalty over the years.

“Jacques began his career in my personal office as a Howard University intern and has showed enormous skill in every task he takes on. He’s a great asset to me and plays an indispensable role in helping this complex operation run smoothly,” Reid said.

At 26, Purvis is one of the youngest staffers working on the Senate floor. He is also one of the first to come and last to leave, regularly working 12-hour days.

But Purvis said that as he walks through the Capitol doors every day, he never forgets where he came from. Clutching a high school ring on his right hand, he talked about his early years in Texas.

“I was born in the inner city and came to Humble, Texas, and a lot of it was a struggle in terms of just finding myself. Finding my place, being different, understanding being different, being called names. The good thing about it: I was athletic, so I was still cool, but at the same time it was tough, because you were always an outsider.”

Humble is part of the Houston metropolitan area, but it is less than 15 percent African-American.

Purvis wasn’t raised with a lot of money. His father had a modest income as a teacher, while his mother stayed at home to take care of him and his two siblings.

“I didn’t realize at the time that we didn’t have a lot of money, but we definitely had a lot of love. They worked really hard to provide for us and stretch a dollar,” he said.

And with that love, his father taught him how to work. When he was only 7, he began working on a neighbor’s 60-acre farm, baling hay, branding cattle and doing other farm work.

But at 5 feet 7 inches tall, Purvis was often underestimated. He took solace in playing football, basketball and track. In middle school, he won his first race to become class president. His interest in politics took off from there, as he was elected class president in his freshman, sophomore and senior years of high school.

During his sophomore year at Howard, Purvis ran for executive president of Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. He was told by university staff that an underclassman could not successfully run for such a high position, and that he should instead run for class president.

Purvis won, but not until after it was contested by a student judiciary board. At 19, he had a budget of more than $100,000 and a staff of 10 to manage.

The student newspaper, the Hilltop, hailed Purvis as “Young and in Charge.”

“It’s not every day a sophomore comes on Howard’s campus and begins taking over, but that’s exactly how it happened with sophomore political science and psychology major, Jacques Purvis,” the October 2002 article read.

Next came Purvis’ first internship on Capitol Hill, in 2003 with the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio).

Purvis soon enrolled in a Senate diversity internship program with then-Minority Whip Reid. During Purvis’ five years with Reid, he has served as an intern, staff assistant, front office manager and Senate floor assistant.

Purvis also wants to achieve another first. He someday plans to enroll in law school so that he can become the first attorney in his family. As for a future in politics or public office, he did not rule it out but noted that there are other ways to serve.

Purvis no longer sees himself as an outsider looking to find his way or his place. Instead, he expressed that these days he feels like he is really a part of an extended family.

“I don’t think I’m as much of an outsider anymore,” he said. “I say that because I truly feel like a part of the Reid family. It means a lot to me.”

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