Women Who Run the Show

Monica Popp and Alexis Covey-Brandt are chiefs of staff in leadership offices

Monica Popp has been Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s chief for almost three years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Monica Popp has been Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn’s chief for almost three years. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 16, 2018 at 5:05am

Republicans haven’t exactly followed the advice of conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, who liked to say, “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

The GOP has five female senators, and none in leadership. It can seem like a man’s caucus, at least from the outside looking in.

But Monica Popp sees a different side. As chief of staff for Majority Whip John Cornyn, she spends hours of her day surrounded by powerful women, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s chief, Sharon Soderstrom, and key floor staffer Laura Dove.

“It is pretty awesome that I sit in a room with Laura and Sharon, and we’re trying to figure things out,” said Popp, 38. “It’s women coming together and trying to solve problems and face the daily challenges.”

All told, women run the staff of 32 Senate offices, not counting committees — and Republicans are outpacing Democrats.

Nineteen female chiefs work for the GOP, compared to just 13 on the other side.

That number has grown even in the past few months. Last week, Sen. James Lankford picked Michelle Altman to lead his staff. In January, Sen. Marco Rubio fired his chief, Clint Reed, for “improper conduct” toward subordinates and replaced him with Jessica Fernandez. 

With sexual harassment in the spotlight, Rubio’s move could become a trend. Lawmakers know their staff choices are under scrutiny after allegations against high-profile men, said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University.

“A clear way to highlight that they recognize the problem and they’re going to do everything they can to nip it in the bud is to replace the person in authority or the harasser with someone who isn’t likely to do the harassing,” she said. “And that would be a woman.”

Republicans have been hiring women since well before #MeToo. Popp, for one, has been chief of staff since 2015, and she counts Beth Jafari, who runs Cornyn’s personal office, as a role model.

“There’s definitely been a lot of female chiefs in the Republican circles for a long time,” Popp said. “In fact, Sen. Cornyn’s longtime chief, Beth, has been with him since Day One. She’s obviously a confidante and a mentor to me.”

Half of the senior staffers in Cornyn’s office are women, Popp said, and she sees more and more coming to the Hill. But unlike the Iron Lady, she doesn’t believe women are uniquely suited to getting things done. In her view, gender should not be a deciding factor in hiring decisions.

“I don’t necessarily think about my career in a lens of men versus women,” she said. “I don’t think that Republicans or Democrats should identify who the best candidate is based on gender. But I do think around here more women are getting involved in politics. That’s a good thing.”

Serving but not running

Even as more women run congressional offices for the GOP, the party has fallen behind in other areas, particularly recruiting female candidates.

“Republicans have a culture of wanting women but not knowing how to court women or how to recruit women,” said Nadia E. Brown, professor of political science at Purdue University.

Still, the differences between Republicans and Democrats aren’t always as stark as they seem. As recently as the second administration of President Ronald Reagan, the GOP had more women in Congress, until EMILY’s List helped change the balance.

The problem that remains is bipartisan. “The gender gap in political ambition among political activists exists on both sides of the aisle,” Lawless said.

The next generation

Alexis Covey-Brandt runs a staff meeting while holding her daughter, Ellie. (Courtesy of Hoyer's office)
Alexis Covey-Brandt runs a staff meeting while holding her daughter, Ellie. (Courtesy House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer’s office)

On the House side, neither caucus could provide an exact count of female chiefs. But both No. 2 House leaders’ offices are run by women. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy’s chief is Barrett Karr, and Democratic whip Steny H. Hoyer’s chief is Alexis Covey-Brandt.

“In politics, as in all things, diversity is a strength, and I know my boss is very proud of the diverse staff that works for him,” said Covey-Brandt, 39. “It makes our team better.”

She touted the other female chiefs in the House, including Kate Keating, who heads the office of Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley.

“I’m actually really lucky to work with a number of incredible women chiefs in leadership. Kate … is terrific,” she said.

Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján also have female chiefs, she said.

Asked what she would tell women who want to emulate her career, Covey-Brandt said, “Work hard and believe in yourself. I want my 17-month-old daughter to grow up believing she can do anything she works hard for and know that she has the opportunity to do it.”

Popp had similar advice. Like Covey-Brandt, she spends a lot of time whipping votes, which “requires a good level of mutual respect.”

“Work really hard,” Popp said. “Try to be as genuine and as kind as you can, and life kind of comes at you pretty well.”

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