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Drew Willison, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms With a City Manager’s Touch

Incoming Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Drew Willison once dreamed of becoming a city manager.  

Willison spent his formative years in Emporia, Va., a tiny town near the North Carolina border with a long tradition of strong city managers, and admired the work of a family friend who held the title. With his mind set on a municipal career path, Willison studied government at William and Mary College, then earned a master’s degree in public administration from Ohio State University.  

Willison takes over. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Willison takes over. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Instead, the 48-year-old, who also has a law degree from George Washington University, went to Capitol Hill. On Monday, as Willison assumes the post of retiring Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance W. Gainer, he effectively becomes the city manager for the 100-member Senate. “Terry and I laugh about that from time to time,” Willison said during an interview in his stately office on the first floor of the Capitol. “This is probably the closest in my career that I’ve ever gotten to being a city manager.”  

Willison oversees a team of more than 800 full-time employees and 200 contractors who enforce protocol; keep the complex secure; man the elevators; deliver the mail; solve email, Internet and phone glitches; track payroll and benefits; pass out ID badges and parking passes; craft the furniture and organize events for the Senate community, ranging from blood drives to Weight Watchers meetings — on a budget of about $200 million.  

“We do offer a little bit of everything around here,”  said Willison, who took over as Gainer’s deputy and the SAA’s chief operating officer in 2007. “The challenge is similar to operating a small city.”  

Taking over the top spot also makes Willison the chief law enforcement officer in the chamber, a role that came naturally to Gainer. The former chief of the Capitol Police was well-liked by the rank and file.  

Willison’s résumé is unique among the sergeants-at-arms in the post-9/11 era —  a point hammered home on April 29, when Secret Service alumnus Bill Pickle, career Army Maj. Gen. Alfonso E. Lenhardt and five other former SAAs gathered in the Capitol for a luncheon with Gainer and Willison.  

Lunch, anyone? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Lunch, anyone? (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Unlike that fraternity, the 39th sergeant-at-arms previously served stints at NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. He joined the staff of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in 1997 to assist Reid’s work on the Environment and Public Works Committee and eventually earned a spot as staff director for the Appropriations Energy-Water Subcommittee. When Reid became majority leader in 2007, he appointed Gainer chief and invited Willison to join Gainer as deputy.  

Willison left the Hill during the 112th Congress to go to work for Battelle, a nonprofit that operates national laboratories for the Department of Energy, but he “missed the Hill” and when Reid asked Willison to come back after the deputy that took his place retired, he agreed.  

A Reid spokesman said Willison is extremely qualified on law enforcement, and that the new job also requires an “element of diplomacy” to handle the unique needs of the 100 senators here.  

Willison keeps a framed sign reading “Mr. Compromise” — originally a gift to Gainer — in his office, and claims a genuine love for the Hill. After 15 years here, he explains: “If this is the work you enjoy, this is where you want to be.”  

During his tenure, the Capitol has countered high-level threats — from nearby shootings to deadly toxins to computer attacks. Willison said Gainer naturally gravitated toward the security side of the job, while Willison honed in on day-to-day operations, but over the years, “we probably both got a pretty good idea of what the other one was doing” and started to function “pretty interchangeably.”  

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who works closely with the Gainer in his capacity as ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, said he hasn’t yet had a chance to get to know Willison, but he comes “well recommended.”  

“Of course, he’s got a tough act to follow,” Hoeven told CQ Roll Call. “But my initial reaction is that he’ll be very good.”  

One of the most difficult parts of Willison’s time as deputy was the sequester-induced staff buyouts. “It wasn’t always ideal in terms of the skill sets that got up and left,” Willison said of the 60 employees, many from the senior leadership team, who accepted the voluntary buyout. “We took all comers.”  

Since then, hiring freezes, consolidation and modernization of equipment, particularly in printing, has left SAA down “probably a solid 100 bodies” from peak employment. “We seem to be doing OK, but it was not without difficulty,” he said. “It’s difficult to say goodbye to people who have been here 30 years and dedicated their lives to it.”  

One of the biggest challenges on the horizon is investigating the controversy involving the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Willison said the hardest part of arranging the review of computers used by committee staffers to investigate the CIA’s interrogation techniques and detainee practices during the George W. Bush administration has been working with the CIA to sort out how to go back and do a forensic analysis.  

“So far, it’s attorneys and policy people talking about it, and then eventually it will get into computer people who do that sort of forensic analysis,” Willison said. “Some of this is just a matter of making people comfortable with the fact that we’re looking at everything we need to and nothing that we shouldn’t. That’s actually the part that’s taking the longest,” he said.  

Michael Stenger will serve as Willison’s deputy. Stenger spent 35 years in the Secret Service, rising to no. 3 in the organization, before joining SAA in 2011.  

“Mike and I are definitely planning to work as a team,” Willison said, adding that he expects Stenger will “naturally gravitate” toward security. “Security is going to be critically important, but I want to continue to focus on the back half of it, which is going to be everybody’s day-to-day interaction on the customer service end.”  

Gainer, who hand-picked the team that will replace him, told CQ Roll Call in an interview about his retirement that he’s confident Willison is someone senators can trust. On the day of the Willison interview, Gainer busted through the doors of his deputy’s office with a joke: “I’m the myth, he’s the man,” he announced.  

Later, he clarified what makes Willison an ideal fit. He grasps both parts of the job — “security and service.”

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