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Hill Climbers: Learning a Michigan State of Mind

Leah Calvo considers herself a Californian by birth, a D.C. local by residency and a Michigan native by association.

“We truly have a Michigan-based staff,” said Calvo, who works for Sen. Debbie Stabenow. “I was told in the interview that 90 percent or more of the staffers are Michigan natives. They kept saying, ‘Well, the competition is tough, and almost everyone is from Michigan!'”

But despite her geographical shortcomings, Calvo, 21, was hired as deputy scheduler for the Michigan Democrat in May. Calvo was originally born in Oakland, Calif., and has lived intermittently in D.C. since she was 3 years old. And the Stanford University alumna isn’t new to Michigan politics or Washington culture; she served as a White House intern in the Office of the Chief of Staff.

“We did a lot of work on the Recovery Act, so there was a lot of continuity between the work I did there and the work I do here since a lot of it was in Michigan,” Calvo said.

Calvo worked under the director of special projects and special assistant to the chief of staff from September 2009 to January 2010. The internship program arranged for a series of guest speakers, including Vice President Joseph Biden, first lady Michelle Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Calvo jokes that one of her favorite cameo appearances was made by first puppy Bo Obama, who was “good-natured and instantly playful.”

In addition to the wise words of senior White House staffers, the young intern learned the importance of separating her private life from her work life, which has increasingly become a problem in Washington with the rise of social media.

“It’s raised my radar,” Calvo said. “When you say something, there may be someone out there who thinks the Senator or the White House or whatever organization you’re representing feels that way.”

Primary responsibilities during her White House internship included aiding staff members on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, conducting background research and drafting memos.

“It’s really rewarding when you write a memo on a city and then you see that memo just come to life on TV,” Calvo said. “I’ve never been a playwright, but I imagine it’s got to be the same feeling!”

Calvo was originally initiated to Capitol Hill in February 2009 when she took on a health policy internship for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, working for the majority staff of then-Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). Although she only worked on the committee for several months, Calvo gained valuable experience by scheduling events, writing telephone talking points and researching health care legislation.

“My most memorable moment was verifying the very high-profile phone numbers in Ted Kennedy’s book of contacts,” Calvo said. “But really the experience just provided me with a lot of context to personalize an event, like where a room is located or even what staffers work in which offices.”

She took a brief hiatus from the Hill in the winter of 2010 to study for the LSAT. Her test date kept getting pushed back because of the snowstorm that incapacitated the East Coast, but she remained optimistic: “At least I got to study more!”

Although she earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy, Calvo was carrying around the notion that she eventually wanted to pursue a law degree. However, after she came to Capitol Hill, and particularly to Stabenow’s office, her paradigms might have shifted.

“I thought I might want to go into law, but I’m learning that I love the operational side of the Hill,” Calvo said. “I’m also getting a good sense of what it’s like to be an LA since I do a lot of scheduling for them.”

Other job duties for Calvo include scheduling meetings and calls, tracking personal correspondence, compiling a nightly briefing book and providing help for the Senator at student events and weekly constituent coffee hours.

This fall, Stabenow’s new hires, staff assistants and mail-room workers will be headed to Michigan for an employee training retreat. Colleagues are quick to remind Calvo — who has never been to the state — that she will finally get the authentic Michigan experience she deserves. This doesn’t surprise Calvo, who said all signs have been pointing her to Michigan since her career began.

“By some weird quirk of fate, I sat next to two people from Michigan during my brief stint with the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] and the White House internship,” Calvo said. “It was the strangest thing; I had been finding out things about Michigan unintentionally for the last year and a half.
And I thought ‘Wow, this place is pretty cool.'”

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