Keenan Austin’s work day now begins by climbing the steps of the John A. Wilson building, instead of the Cannon House Office Building.
Austin recently became the latest congressional staffer to depart the gridlocked institution for the District of Columbia government, joining At-Large Councilmember David Grosso’s office as his new chief of staff in September.
“It was so attractive to be able to be in a role where you’re hands-on again, affecting policy that will immediately change people’s lives,” Austin said in a phone interview. “That doesn’t negate my experience on the Hill. It was wonderful.”
Austin, a Georgia native, spent five years working first as a senior adviser and then as a deputy chief of staff for Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla. She praised her former boss for working to create jobs and expand educational opportunities, but Austin said the inertia in Congress contributed to her decision to leave.
She’s not alone.
A number of national political, executive and legislative staffers have joined Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, including LaDavia Drane, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, who worked as director of Bowser’s Office of Federal and Regional Affairs before decampint for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Bowser Communications Director Michael Czin, a former press secretary at the Democratic National Committee.
Grosso’s office also added Jessica Giles, who worked as a legislative fellow for Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., to its roster as a committee assistant in September.
“There are so many of us who are now here at city hall,” Austin said. “And I think it’s just an attractive opportunity for all of us to be here and put some of those great ideas to use. On the Hill, we work for great people who are doing the best they can to move the agenda forward.”
“Between our executive branch and our legislative branch, there are just so many levels of conflict that are not allowing good work of our staff and members to be effective on both sides of the aisle,” she added.
Austin said she has received advice from fellow congressional-turned-D.C. staffers, including the importance of being prepared to get right to work and keeping an open mind.
For Austin, working for the D.C. Council is a return to her political roots. While earning her MBA at Florida A&M University, she interned for Atlanta City Councilman Michael Bond, son of the late prominent civil rights activist and D.C. statehood advocate Julian Bond.
Despite a love of politics, Austin continued to pursue her business degree at the urging of her parents. After graduating, she worked as a buyer for Macy’s and a pharmaceutical sales representative. After meeting Wilson at a fundraiser, Austin began volunteering for his campaign, which she saw as a way to fulfill her passion.
Her role in Wilson’s campaign slowly expanded from fundraising to press work. When Wilson’s campaign manager was diagnosed with cancer, Austin was asked to take the helm. And after Wilson won her 2010 election, Austin moved to D.C.
“I think that we always end up doing what we love, or what we’re destined to do,” Austin said of her career path, “no matter the roundabout way you end up doing it.”
Austin currently lives in the Navy Yard area of D.C., and says she is looking forward to ensuring the District’s economic growth benefits all residents. Of course, unlike in her past city council work in Atlanta, the D.C. Council has a unique adversary: Congress.
The District’s political status allows Congress to intervene in a number of local issues, with lawmakers often attaching policy riders to spending bills, dictating how D.C. can spend its local and federal money. Grosso, who chairs the Council’s Education Committee, has been outspoken about pushing back against congressional interference in D.C. affairs, and he authored a law Congress is still attempting to overturn .
“I think I’ll learn more in the days ahead,” Austin said of dealing with congressional interference. “I think it’s certainly going to inform my role here. … D.C. deserves a vote.”
For now, Austin is settling into her new role and focused on advancing Grosso’s agenda of a more efficient government and for a quality education for every child in D.C.
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