Keith Stern sat at a table in the Rayburn room outside Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office eager to start as director of floor legislative operations for the California Democrat.
It was Oct. 9, his last day as chief of staff for Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, the second highest-ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee. He is replacing 28-year veteran Jerry Hartz, who left Pelosi’s office in September for the nonprofit National Democratic Institute. It was fitting that as Stern sat with CQ Roll Call to discuss his career on Capitol Hill, in which strategizing has played a significant role, a bipartisan majority of House members were executing a rarely successful procedure, a discharge petition, to force a future vote on the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank — illustrating that with the right strategy, the patience to implement it and a strong knowledge of the rules, the minority can be effective.
“If you look, many of the people in the majority were trying to oppose that and block it,” Stern said. “And you use the process to get it through.”
Different issues require different strategies, and Stern is always thinking about what tools are available. Stern twice helped his former boss, McGovern, force votes on an authorization for use of military force against the Islamic State terror group. In 2013, Stern helped McGovern craft an amendment that would have restored food stamp cuts to the farm bill.
Stern, who called McGovern “one of the best rules minds and floor minds you’ll find,” said strategy depends on knowing how everything works, from procedure to the floor to the Congressional Budget Office.
“I’ve learned a lot doing that,” Stern said. “It’s been pretty interesting.”
As floor director, Stern is in charge of all of Pelosi’s floor activities, which includes advising the caucus — members, leadership and staff — on legislative and procedural strategy.
“One of the things about being the minority floor director is you’re not just serving the Democratic leader, you’re serving the Democratic caucus as a whole,” Stern said. “You’re making sure that everyone is well represented; that the views of the caucus are getting through, because we believe that those are the views of the voters.”
In the early 1990s, Stern, a Southern California native, headed east to study political science at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. He moved to Washington in 1996 to launch his career, starting with internships for the U.S. Agency for International Development, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif.
Stern waited tables at a California Pizza Kitchen in Dupont Circle while seeking a full-time job. He soon landed a legislative correspondent position with then-Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and then a legislative assistant position with Roybal-Allard. In 1999, he moved to McGovern’s office as a legislative assistant and worked his way up, first to rules associate and then to chief of staff in 2014.
Stern is married with two young daughters at home. He plays basketball in his spare time — when there is spare time — and even turned in some last-second heroics in the 2010 Hoops for Hope charity game with members of Congress, knocking down a free throw to seal victory.
As a time management technique while still with McGovern, he delegated the day-to-day Rules Committee operations once he became chief of staff. It wasn’t uncommon at Rules to get a call at 11 p.m. for a midnight meeting, or have a 4 p.m. meeting last until 10 p.m.
“The late nights didn’t bother me as much as the uncertainty,” Stern said. “A lot of that is based on the rhythms of the House. The House just has to move in certain ways.”
Stern said he is excited for the new challenge, for the opportunity to work with Pelosi and to be in a leadership office. Naturally, his biggest worry is that he won’t do well enough with so much at stake.
“It’s not just letting someone down,” Stern said. “It actually matters if you screw up.”
As highly as Stern speaks of McGovern’s strategic acumen, he didn’t hesitate to pronounce Pelosi the House’s best strategist — Democrat or Republican. From engineering the campaign for House control in 2006, resulting in a four-year Democratic majority, to getting the Affordable Care Act passed, he has complete trust in her tactics.
“The opportunity to learn from someone like that is once in a lifetime,” Stern said.
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