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Hill Climbers: Political Enthusiast Loves the Hill

Michelle Schwartz always wanted to work in politics, and she has been on a straight-line career path for most of her adult life.

The new deputy chief of staff for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) attributes her deep interest in politics to her upbringing.

Growing up in Livingston, N.J., dinner time with her family would consist of a discussion of current events.

“We ate dinner together every night at 6:30 pretty much my whole life, and we would talk about what was going on in the world,” she said.

Then, as a junior in high school, she got to experience politics first hand when Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign set up a headquarters in her home town and was looking for volunteers.

“I thought I’d be there one day a week,” she said, “then it became two, then three.” After that, she was hooked and knew she wanted to work in politics.

Despite getting her start in politics in New Jersey, Schwartz worked on New York campaigns during and after her time as an undergraduate student at Duke University. She attributed her interest in New York politics to the lack of televised political coverage of her home state.

“New Jersey is the only state in the U.S. that doesn’t have its own media market,” she explained. “If you grow up in suburban northern New Jersey, like I did, then all of your television is [focused on] New York. So you actually growing up seeing more on the news about New York politics.”

During college, she interned on Ruth Messinger’s losing 1997 New York City mayoral campaign against Rudy Giuliani, working in the research department. After graduating from Duke, Schwartz returned to New York to work for former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in the 1998 Democratic Senate primary.

“I really wanted to work on a campaign,” she said, a goal that was fulfilled when she was hired by Ferraro’s campaign the day after graduation.

When Ferraro (who died this year) was crushed in the primary by Rep. Charles Schumer, Schwartz joined Schumer’s campaign as deputy research director.

“I had been really impressed with him during the primary,” she said, explaining that her main goal was to defeat Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. She said her experience with Ferraro made her the perfect fit for Schumer’s campaign. “Since I was researcher, I knew a lot about Schumer, I knew a lot about D’Amato, and figured my work was probably going to get to [the Schumer campaign], so they might as well get me.”

After a stint working in Schumer’s Washington, D.C., office, Schwartz decided she wanted to go back to school to be able to work on judiciary issues.

“I always thought that I would like law school,” she said, “but I hadn’t really decided what I would do with a law degree.” She enrolled in Yale Law School, a program she said was attractive to her because of its focus on policy.

After graduation, Schwartz moved to Los Angeles to clerk for a federal judge, then returned to the District to work for the law firm Williams & Connolly LLP, where she did litigation.

Then it was back to the Hill.

“I had a great experience at the firm,” she said, “and got to do all sorts of the things young lawyers dream about … but I really missed the Hill.”

Her first job back in the Capitol was in Lautenberg’s office, where she worked as senior counsel. She then moved on to legislative director and is now deputy chief of staff. And her career has come full circle: She has worked on the very issue that helped guide her political career, New Jersey’s lack of a media market.

She explained how ensuring that New Jersey outlets — specifically the one commercial television station licensed in New Jersey —cover New Jersey news has “been a big issue” for Lautenberg.

“The Senator has been working really hard to make sure that they actually live up to their obligations as a New Jersey station, as opposed to acting like another New York television station,” she said.

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