It’s been one year since Danielle Gray chatted with Reggie Scholars during one of her visits to the Duke campus. Gray was just a few days from ending her tenure as U.S. Cabinet Secretary and Assistant to President Barack Obama. In this Q&A article from Distinction Magazine you can read about Gray’s conversation with Reggie Scholars and what she’s doing now.
Working in the West Wing (from Distinction Magazine)
Danielle Gray ‘00
Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholar
“I’m leaving the White House in two days.”
Those words were among Danielle Gray’s first, while meeting with Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholars in Perkins Library on a Saturday morning in February 2014. A Reggie alumna and frequent visitor to campus, Gray was winding down her tenure as U.S. Cabinet Secretary and Assistant to President Barack Obama. The scholars were excited not only to hear about Gray’s experiences in the White House, and in law school as editor of Harvard Law Review, but also to ask questions about the challenges she faced to achieve so much, at such a young age. Gray, a first generation college student, graduated from Duke in 2000 and joined the White House at 30, eventually taking the post as one of the President’s Senior Advisors. Here are the Reggies’ questions and Gray’s candid answers.
Reggie Scholar Niara Wright 2014: Right after you graduated from Duke, did you go straight into public administration?
After I graduated, I went to Harvard Law School. After law school I went to a clerkship for a federal judge in Washington, D.C. I also clerked for Justice Breyer on the U.S. Supreme Court. The year between those two clerkships, in 2004, was a big presidential election year. Also, then-State Senator Obama was running for election in Illinois, for U.S. Senate. We had many law professors in common. I harassed basically every professor I knew from law school to help me make a connection and I went to work for Obama’s U.S. Senate campaign.
What does it mean to work on a senate campaign? It means you do no get paid. You work very, very long hours. And it’s not at all glamorous. It’s researching to sit down with a labor union or other groups who want to know why they should endorse you. It’s everything from that to walking down the streets of Chicago with a bullhorn, saying, “Vote Obama.”
I was lucky enough to be part of a campaign that quickly became not a very typical campaign. His opponent dropped out. He gave that famous speech in 2004 at the Democratic Convention. He became sort of a superstar. We were forced to look ahead and I began looking at policy issues.
After that experience I went back to my clerkship. I practiced law for a firm in New York and a few years later Obama ran for President. I went to work for his presidential campaign as his deputy policy director, writing white papers for his policy positions and helping him prepare for debates. I camped out in Iowa and knocked on doors, the whole gamut.
Reggie Scholar Ernie Britt 2016:
Day-to-day what does your job entail? What do you do?
I’ve had a few different roles in the last five years. I started out as lawyer in the office of the White House Counsel. I helped different White House staff think about legal issues that came up about policy. I spent a lot of time on the Affordable Care Act. I also helped the President pick people for the bench, judges and Supreme Court nominees.
My next job, I moved to the Justice Department, litigating cases for a short time, before being pulled back to the White House as deputy director of the National Economic Council, focusing on economic policies: labor, tax credits, budget policy, and housing policy.
That brought me to my most recent job. I was promoted in January of last year to my current job, of which I have literally 48 more hours. I am the President’s Cabinet Secretary. I’m a liaison between the President and his cabinet. Day-to-day that can involve helping agencies that are all trying to coordinate around presidential priorities, like immigration reform or healthcare reform.
Reggie Scholar Jamie McGhee 2016:
What influenced your decision to take time off from the administration?
Tired. (laughter from scholars and Gray).
The hours are long, but when people say these jobs are exhausting, it’s not the hours. It’s the importance of the things you work on. No one who is responsible in these positions ever views himself or herself as going home for the day. You’re doing conference calls late at night.
If you look at most people’s bios who work in White House administrations, they tend to be there for two years or so. This five-year thing I’ve been on is a little bit long. If you add in the campaign, that’s about seven years. For me the decision to move on was a difficult one because I’ve been very fortunate. I very much believe in this President. And it was a tough call, because you leave with the awareness that the rest of your life might just be down hill. When you’re 35 that’s a lot to think about. It was hard walking away from the White House position because it’s been so much fun, but I think someone should be able to do my job with the kind of energy that I had a few years ago. That’s a good thing and a healthy thing.
Reggie ScholarZanele Munyikwa 2015:
What have been some challenges throughout your career? Have there been some moments when you were unsure you were on the right track in terms of your trajectory?
One challenge has been being a young woman, and a young woman of color. I’m often the youngest person in the room. I’m often the only woman in the room. I’m often the only person of color in the room. That’s a common occurrence in my life. You have to think about how not to let doubts about your age or experience get into your head, and you have to think, “I’m in this chair for a reason. I’m capable of doing this.”
The other challenge is just the balance in your life. I was packing up my office the other day and I was looking at these pictures that I have framed of my niece and she doesn’t look like that anymore. She’s a seven-year-old, not a one-year-old. Time has sort of just gone by. You’re working so hard and the other things you care about — keeping up with friends, relationships, caring for aging parents — all become real sacrifices that you make a lot in these kinds of jobs.
Reggie Scholar Ernie Britt 2016:
This is not a super serious question, but would you consider the environment in the White House more like The West Wing, or Scandal, or House of Cards?
Definitely more like The West Wing. I should be offended that you invoked Scandal. (laughter) One of the things I’m most excited about with time off is the ability to watch House of Cards. I’ve heard it’s amazing and I’ve not had time to watch it. I love Scandal, but that show is more soap opera than the White House is.
The reason I think The West Wing is very realistic is a number of people who worked in the Clinton administration were actually consultants to Aaron Sorkin and The West Wing. When I was in the National Economic Council, my boss Gene Sperling, the President’s top economic advisor, was a consultant on The West Wing.
Reggie Scholar Zanele Munyikwa 2015:
How did you know your career was what you were meant to do? I’m a computer science major, but I don’t know if there’s this click where you know you’re following your destiny.
I don’t know if that click ever comes. There’s a part of me that thinks I should go be a lawyer. There’s a part of me that thinks I should go start a non-profit. There’s a part of me that thinks I should go work at a company. I live with this all of the time. I can’t figure out what I want to do when I grow up. I just try to think of what is the most interesting thing I can be doing. So much of this is trial and error. You have to figure out what feels right to you, what feels true to you. I think sometimes people pick a major or do things just because there’s a herd going there. I would not have the career I have right now if I didn’t go “I’m going to go work for this guy named Barack Hussein Obama, who thinks he should be a United States Senator.” If I had been on the beaten path, I would have missed it.
Since February, Gray has returned to her law firm, O’Melveny & Myers. She’s also lecturer of law at Harvard — not likely this super achiever’s last stop. Keep in mind; her Harvard classmates voted her most likely to become a Supreme Court Justice. White House insiders predict Gray will be on the short list for cabinet level jobs for Democratic presidents for the next four decades. Inspired Reggie scholars will keep watch after the time Gray spent with them at Duke.