Amy Rutkin has been around Congress long enough to remember something like friendliness between the two parties.
For much of her career, and even as recently as the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, Rutkin recalls Republican and Democratic staffers commiserating.
“We would have weekly meetings with both,” said Rutkin, who is Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s longtime chief of staff, as well as his right hand on the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s sort of like it’s the staff against the members. There’s a kind of camaraderie. We have to orchestrate these hearings and these markups. And we would do a kind of friendly gaming-out of how things would work.”
But times have changed, she said.
“Things started changing very dramatically. What went from views about restrained government became views about eliminating government. The quality of the debate degraded greatly,” said Rutkin, who recently announced her plans to leave the Hill to start her own political consulting firm.
Her departure is a major shakeup for Nadler, whose office she’s led since 1999, and for House Judiciary, where Nadler is ranking member and where she’s served as Democratic staff director since 2017, becoming the first woman to hold the role.
“She is legendary on Capitol Hill for the combination of her substantive policy expertise and deft political skills,” Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin said in a statement. “She can break through a Washington political impasse in a New York minute.”
In more than two decades on the job, Rutkin has helped shepherd through the House key legislation on LGBTQ+ rights. She’s presided over two impeachment inquiries. And she’s been at Nadler’s side after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the mob assault on the Capitol in 2021, and countless other historic moments.
“Amy has been my friend, Chief of Staff, and most trusted advisor for nearly twenty-five years,” Nadler said in a statement. “Her intellect, tenacity, and problem-solving skills are second to none.”
Speculation has swirled about when Nadler himself might retire, but Rutkin insists the 76-year-old is staying put. He is “1,000 percent committed to running for reelection … not a question at all,” she said.
As for herself, she cites “some of the nonsensical BS and time wasting and crazy” on Capitol Hill as one reason she picked this moment to go. “I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t tired from some of the things that have gone on,” she said.
“It’s time … I do think everybody deserves the semblance of a regular life at some point,” added Rutkin, who wants to spend more time with her two teenage girls.
Her shoes will be filled not by one aide, but by three, with John Doty and Robert Gottheim moving up together to serve in the chief of staff role. Aaron Hiller will become minority staff director for the Judiciary Committee.
“I also see young people with so much energy who are coming up in my organization — in Judiciary and in the Nadler world — who need the chance to be able to do the work at the highest level and are so spectacular,” Rutkin said. “I just was not as good at that age as they are.”
A broken promise
Rutkin’s humility aside, she stood out in her early political years — or at least enough to catch the eye of Nadler’s wife, Joyce Miller. According to Rutkin, she and Miller were working on the same New York state comptroller race in the 1990s. After a string of resignations, Rutkin briefly ran the campaign.
Miller liked what she saw, and later recommended Rutkin to her husband.
“He offered me the chief of staff position, which is quite unusual because I’d never actually worked on the Hill before,” said Rutkin. A few years earlier, Nadler had prevailed in a primary against one of New York’s first openly gay politicians.
“Members often hire for the attributes that they don’t have. And he’s obviously not a woman and he’s not a member of the LGBT community. So I think those kinds of things were probably a little bit compelling to him,” said Rutkin, sounding every inch the political consultant.
She accepted the offer with a condition: “I said, ‘I promise you that I will not work for you one day more than four years.’”
Rutkin — a self-described “student-council kid” who grew up in Arizona idolizing Bella Abzug, the trailblazing former representative from New York City — broke that promise for a variety of reasons. She said she developed a “shared brain” with Nadler.
“He’s a very menschy, very brilliant man. He maybe is the smartest person I’ve ever met,” Rutkin said.
She also stacked up a list of legislative accomplishments.
Even though it stalled in the Senate, Rutkin said the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act is one she’s proud of most. The bill, which passed the House, would have instituted a sweeping criminal justice overhaul and taken aim at excessive force and racial bias in policing.
She also worked on the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages. The measure passed in 2022, and Rutkin was among those celebrating at the White House as President Joe Biden signed it into law.
It was personally meaningful for Rutkin, a lesbian who was once married to Valerie Berlin, co-founder of communications powerhouse BerlinRosen. The couple is now divorced.
“Sometimes I feel a little bit like Forrest Gump. I’ve ended up in the middle of a bunch of crazy historic things,” Rutkin joked.
She worked on the effort to ensure health care and compensation for victims of the Sept. 11 attack, and recently she has navigated the tense mood in Congress around the Israel-Hamas war, telling news outlet City and State earlier this month that she and Nadler live on “the very thin knife’s edge between the Jewish community and the progressive world.”
“He is the most senior Jewish member … and unfortunately, the responsibilities about that in this moment have been very large,” she said.
Rutkin won’t be going far when she leaves. The firm she’s starting will have outposts in New York and Washington and will provide consulting to those in office and seeking office. Citing ethics concerns, she declined to give more details, but in a post on LinkedIn, she put it this way: “I will be hanging out my own advocacy/politics/management consulting shingle.”
She didn’t take the decision lightly, and she worries about an exodus of “amazing people” from the Hill.
“It’s really hard. I’m so sad to leave the people — to leave [Nadler]. I don’t know that I’m even going to know myself very well because it’s been my entire adult career,” Rutkin said. “And I’m very fearful that people leaving creates a vacuum for more people who are not well intentioned. There are so many amazing people, but I don’t know that amazing people are going to hang on in that institution.”