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For Nancy Pelosi, a woman is chief

Terri McCullough returns home to the Hill in pinnacle role as speaker’s chief of staff

Terri McCullough, incoming chief of staff for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is photographed in the Capitol on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Terri McCullough, incoming chief of staff for Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is photographed in the Capitol on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Terri McCullough is coming home.

The 50-year-old San Francisco Bay Area native, who began her career as an intern for Rep. Nancy Pelosi and has spent more than half her life since working for the California Democrat, is returning to the Hill on Monday.

McCullough will serve the same boss (Pelosi) with the same title (chief of staff) as when she left in 2011. But this time the stakes are even higher — she’s running the speaker’s leadership office instead of her personal office.

“I did not expect this opportunity. This is not where I ever anticipated I would be. But I was absolutely thrilled and honored when she asked me,” McCullough said in an interview Thursday.

And it was that simple. Pelosi asked McCullough to come back to work for her and to help her lead House Democrats’ efforts to enact their “For the People” agenda — no convincing needed.

“She’s Speaker Pelosi. She doesn’t have to give anybody a big pitch,” McCullough said.

The theater lover is making the move back to Washington from New York to take the chief of staff job. Had Pelosi not come calling, McCullough said she would probably still be working in roles outside of government to create opportunities for women and underrepresented minority groups.

That was her focus when she left the Hill in 2011 — after Pelosi’s first speakership ended — to become the first executive director of the Tory Burch Foundation. There she helped start a mentorship program for female entrepreneurs, joining with partners like Bank of America and Goldman Sachs to bring capital and educational resources to business owners.

Three years later she took charge of the Clinton Foundation’s “No Ceilings” project, working alongside Hillary Clinton after her tenure as secretary of State. McCullough led a project that examined data on women’s leadership across 20 years in 190 countries and then developed programs to address the gender gaps.

Since she left the Clinton Foundation in 2017, McCullough has been doing consulting work that fits in with those other threads of her career. 

As she returns to the Hill, McCullough is breaking ground for herself like she’s sought to do for so many other women. She will be the first woman to serve as a speaker’s chief of staff — at least in the sense we know it today. (Former Speaker Thomas S. Foley’s wife, Heather, served as an unpaid chief of staff in his office with only a few of the responsibilities full-time, paid chiefs of staff hold. And former Speakers Nicholas Longworth and John Garner had female secretaries that were considered high-ranking staffers in their times.)

McCullough replaces outgoing chief of staff Daniel Weiss, who saw Pelosi through her latest transition from minority leader to speaker.

It’s not lost on McCullough that she’s starting the job during Women’s History Month, and in the same week the House will pass legislation designed to close the gender pay gap.

But what McCullough didn’t realize until the other day, as someone told her they’d never had a female chief before, is that she’s spent her entire career working for accomplished women, like Pelosi, Burch and Clinton.

“That’s not unusual to me, and I would like for it to be much more usual to many people,” she said. 

Congress is at an inflection point, with a record-breaking 127 female lawmakers serving between both parties and both chambers. And it’s become more common for women to serve in senior staff roles.

There’s more progress to be made, McCullough said.

“I’ve sort of focused my efforts around work that would increase the full participation of women and girls and people who are normally not at decision-making tables in all aspects of society and opportunity — an area that is really important to me and one on which certainly we are focused here,” she said.

One might assume that she learned that instinct from Pelosi, as the California Democrat shattered institutional barriers to become the first female speaker. But it was actually something McCullough recognized early in life, when she was finishing her degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

“It was very important to me to work for a woman elected official,” McCullough said. “I was studying politics and I was interested in creating institutional change in that way. But I also didn’t feel very represented, so I wanted to understand better what life was like for a woman who had been elected to office.”

Pelosi had been serving in Congress for about four years when McCullough landed an internship in her San Francisco district office in 1991. She was able to work her way up the ranks, eventually moving to Washington to serve as a legislative assistant. 

Terri McCullough, pictured in 2003 when she came back to the Hill the first time to serve as an adviser to Pelosi after she was first elected Democratic leader. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Terri McCullough, pictured in 2003 when she came back to the Hill the first time to serve as an adviser to Pelosi after she was first elected Democratic leader. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

It was after serving in that role that McCullough took her first break from the Hill.

“It got to a point where I needed to better understand the depth of an issue rather than the breadth we are faced with every day,” she said. “So I spent a year working at NARAL on choice and reproductive health issues. I moved up to New York, I worked for an education nonprofit, and then I worked for the actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith in helping build her nonprofit that worked to support art that was created to examine social issues.”

While working for Smith’s nonprofit in 2002, McCullough married Howard Wolfson, who was serving at the time as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They now have two children, a daughter and a son, who after their April birthdays will be 14 and 10, respectively.

It was 2003, when Pelosi was first elected Democratic leader, that McCullough came back to the Hill the first time. She started as an adviser in the outreach office and moved up to chief of staff in Pelosi’s office, where she stayed until 2011.

McCullough’s return to government service is a homecoming in every sense of the word, building on both her prior tenure with Pelosi and her own personal background.

“None of this work is rhetorical for me,” she said, adding that she was raised on community participation, whether that was in a church community or civic community. 

The government has also blessed McCullough’s life in various ways throughout the years. Her father was a letter carrier and a postal supervisor for 30 years, and her family lived at times off his pension. She was the first person in her family to graduate from college because she was able to obtain a Pell Grant. 

“So the good that the federal government can provide has always been very real in my life,” she said. “And it has always been a very real goal for me to help advance that opportunity for as many people as possible.”

Watch: Pelosi and House Democrats unveil legislative agenda for 116th

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