Danny O’Brien never had a career path plotted out — certainly not one that included serving as Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director for the past two years, in the Clinton White House or in senior Senate posts for now-Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
Now, after more than 20 years in the public sector, O’Brien is calling it quits to join General Electric’s global government affairs team. O’Brien has served under Menendez for the past six years, first as chief of staff before moving over to Foreign Relations, where Menendez served as chairman in the last Congress. Menendez said O’Brien has the critical ability to understand politics, policy and process.
“Danny is one of those exceptional people who are worth their weight in gold to this institution and anybody serving our country,” the New Jersey Democrat said.
O’Brien was Biden’s Senate chief of staff in 2003, then helped lead his 2008 run for president.
“Danny has not only real substantive depth on domestic and foreign policy issues, he also understands how to get things done,” Biden told Roll Call through an email from his staff. “He knows the right thing to do at the right moment. That’s the mark of a good leader.”
While O’Brien is leaving Congress, he may not be gone forever. Making a return, perhaps even through a run for a House seat, is “absolutely something that … maybe some day I’ll get to do,” O’Brien said in an interview with CQ Roll Call. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee approached the Redlands, Calif., native a few years ago to run, but he turned them down.
“I was tempted, but I was starting a family, so it wasn’t just me on my own,” he said.
While O’Brien, now a father of two young children, left the door open on a political career, he noted that some of that drive to run for Congress had been satisfied by holding senior staff roles in the Senate for 13 years.
Looking back on his career — which included seven years of working in the labor movement in Eastern Europe and South America — O’Brien marveled at how it all unfolded, without much planning on his part.
His work in domestic politics began after returning from abroad in 1996, when the office of Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., contacted him to work on a congressional campaign in the state. Former state Sen. Bob Coffin, a Las Vegas Democrat, was challenging then-Rep. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Though Ensign, who later resigned his Senate seat amid ethics charges, won re-election to the House that year, O’Brien’s experience on the Coffin campaign opened up doors for new assignments.
For the 1998 cycle, O’Brien was hired by the Democratic National Committee to lead a program organizing and training state parties and campaigns, helping to shape the response to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Those midterms were a notable victory for Democrats, who won five seats in the House and lost no Senate seats.
After the elections, O’Brien was hired by the White House as director of ethnic outreach. The post dealt with the domestic politics associated with U.S. foreign policy, including crafting the message to Arab-Americans during Middle East peace talks and to Irish-Americans in connection with the Good Friday Peace Accords.
In 2000, again at the behest of Reid, O’Brien led Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s campaign in Nevada. After a second campaign loss, O’Brien thought he’d had enough of political campaigns. That was until he met Jim McGreevey, who was running for governor of New Jersey, in a move that would lead him to Biden.
It took some convincing, including from then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who is now governor of Virginia, but O’Brien did join the ultimately victorious McGreevy campaign. Of course, three years later McGreevey surprisingly resigned after confessing to having a secret male lover whom he had tried to install as a Homeland Security adviser.
After the 2001 gubernatorial campaign, then-Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, D-N.J., tapped O’Brien to be his chief of staff. But that ended up being Torricelli’s last year in Congress. After the Ethics Committee admonished him for accepting gifts from a campaign donor, Torricelli decided not to seek re-election in 2002.
Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., replaced Torricelli on the ballot and won the seat. O’Brien helped Lautenberg set up his office before moving over as Biden’s chief of staff. In 2006, O’Brien left Capitol Hill to become political director of Biden’s presidential campaign.
The strategy was “to reintroduce him to the early state Democrats, and policy-wise we were driving leadership on national security knowing that there was a very narrow path that could lead to the nomination, and it would be a national security path,” O’Brien said.
Biden, who had a shoestring campaign budget, came in fifth in the Iowa caucuses and shortly thereafter dropped out of the race. But O’Brien said he still feels like they came in second, since Barack Obama chose Biden to join the ticket as his running mate.
“Our campaign, I think, played a role in revealing to Obama Joe Biden’s strengths as a running mate and a vice president,” O’Brien said.
Unsure of his next move after the Biden campaign, O’Brien ran into Menendez, whose chief of staff had recently left. Menendez offered O’Brien the job, and O’Brien accepted on the understanding that he would leave after two years. That two-year commitment became six years in December.
“I was not rushing to get out of here, but the opportunity with GE arose,” O’Brien said. “Being part of their global affairs seems like a tremendous challenge … [but] I know I will miss the Senate and being in the mix.”
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