My journey to the US Congress


Originally Published: July 11, 2010

Lorraine Miller, the Clerk of the United States House of Representatives, likes to play golf to unwind after work.

But the last time she did this was two years ago. That is how busy she has been.

She says she likes to go on picnics with family and friends. But her job does not allow such regular luxuries. For her duties are many and heavy.

Ms Miller was on her sixth visit to Kenya last week in a delegation of eight congressmen from the US on a three-day mission to help the Kenyan Parliament improve on its daily functions.

She was happy to be back and would have loved to explore had time – and, in the case of Wednesday night, the traffic – allowed.

On the first night of her visit, she thought the tight schedule of her day merited a “reward”. It was Wednesday, Ladies Night in Nairobi, and she and friends thought it would be a good idea to have a good time at the Carnivore. But it was not to be. The traffic jam from her hotel to Carnivore was crazy.

“Soon we were looking for an exit off the highway, turn around, and go back to our hotel. The traffic was unimaginable,” she said.

But that did not dampen her spirits. She has been through this and much more. From February 2007, she has been managing the day-to-day operations of the House of Representatives and oversees nine departments that employ more than 270 people.

Third woman

She is the first African-American and third woman to serve as an officer of the US Congress.

Before her appointment she served as Senior Adviser and Director of Intergovernmental Relations to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and has nearly two decades of experience working for the House.

In addition to working for Mrs Pelosi, Ms Miller has worked for two other Speakers, Jim Wright and Tom Foley, as well as Congressman John Lewis of Georgia.

On the day of the interview with Lifestyle she had only a single piece of jewellery on her right middle finger – a purple pearl ring. On her neck lay a pearl white necklace. Her hair was cropped and she wore a loose flowered shirt and plain trousers.

Apart from her imposing height (she is 6’2”), the grip from her handshake transmits some of the confidence that, she says, has been one of the ingredients in her rise to the clerk’s chair.

“But it hasn’t come easy,” she said.

Despite he fact that she has always thought of herself as a people’s servant, she thought the service would come in a different way.

“I wanted to become a doctor. I made the grades and enrolled for my undergraduate studies,” she said.

She soon found out that medicine was far from what she considered an ideal career. After the first semester, she changed courses.

“This was not my dream. I knew I had goals. My mother was very strict with us. So my sister and I grew up knowing that school was not a choice; it was mandatory. We were going to go to college and we were going to graduate,” she said.

Her first semester included classes in botany, microbiology and genetics.

“I had to get up at 4 a.m. to go look at fruit flies. In another class I had to dissect a pig. That combination simply did not work for me. The next semester I was in a political science class.”

The political science degree did not create a straight path to Capitol.

“There are some jobs you just don’t apply for regardless of your qualifications,” she said.

So how did she eventually become the first black woman to occupy the seat? One word: persistence.

She started her working life as a government high school teacher in Fort Worth, Texas – her hometown.

Rejection letter

However, she was more intrigued by politics and once a year for 10 years she wrote to the then Texas Representative Jim Wright and inquired about employment. Each time, she received a standard rejection letter.

Eventually, she moved to Washington, enrolled in a graduate programme at American University and later landed a job in Wright’s office.

She did not start off well in her new job at Capitol Hill. In an interview with the Washington Post, she said in her first two weeks in Mr Wright’s office, she had got used to answering telephones until one day a caller asked for the chief of staff.

“He is unavailable,” she answered.

“Tell him it’s Jim,” the caller said.

“Jim who?” she asked.

Boss’s voice

She had no idea it was her boss. She was reassigned shortly thereafter for the blunder but quickly memorised the sound of her boss’s voice. From then on she developed a habit of memorising the voices of the House members.

Ms Miller worked for Mr Wright for 11 years, including while he was Speaker. She also worked for another speaker, Thomas S. Foley.

She worked for two years in the White House during the Clinton administration as deputy assistant to the president, serving as his liaison to the House, and joined the Federal Trade Commission and later the Federal Communications Commission.

But her big break came with Nancy Pelosi.

“I had no idea the amount of responsibility that comes with the position. But each day I wake up feeling I not only have got to do it, I have to do it well too,” she said.

One late night in early 2007, as she buried her head in files trying to make sure her boss had it a bit easier the next day, Mrs Pelosi called her into her office.

A historian

“Hey, Lorraine, I need you to help me figure out some new positions,” Mrs Pelosi said. The positions included that of the Clerk to the House of Representatives, an administration officer and a historian.

She was to shortlist candidates, go through their employment history and provide a final list. All this she was to do in two days.

“I knew the calibre of people she was looking for. So I promised to get on it immediately,” Ms Miller said.

But before as she left the office, the sucker punch followed.

“And is there any position that would interest you among the three?” asked Mrs Pelosi.

Ms Miller hesitated for a while before answering, “Maybe clerk.”

“I knew it! I was telling Paul (Pelosi, her husband) that this would be the perfect job for you,” the Speaker said.

And thus Ms Miller joined Washington’s top brass.

She took to the office years of experience, an impressive education background and an unbeatable work ethic.

She says she cannot remember ever having taken a break in the past decade.

Favourite hymns

“I recently attended the funeral of one of my House members. During his memorial, his mother wrote: ‘Everyone in this earth is here to make a difference’ … When I stop feeling that I am no longer making a difference may be I will think of getting time off,” she said, breaking out into one of her favourite Sunday hymns from her childhood:

“Brighten the corner where you are, someone far from harbour you may guide across the bar, brighten the corner where you are …”

This does not mean that she does not like to unwind after a long day at work or, in her case, after a decade of hard work.

“It is a high-pressure job. Once in a while I like to play golf or organise picnics with family and friends,” she said. It has been two long years since she had a golf club in her hands.

Though she may be considered among the few, but growing number of black high achievers, she says there is still a long way to go.

“The race issue is even more prominent now. There maybe discussion in the American public that we are becoming a race-neutral society but we are not quite there. Too many elements have held us back. But significant progress is being made,” she said.

Ms Miller says African-Americans are reaching new heights in every aspect of life. But the struggle for equality is still on.

Although she has been to Kenya several times before, she says each visit is different for her. This time she is convinced that the country is on the verge of rediscovering itself.

“There seems to be an emerging middle class Kenyans, most of them are on the move,” she said.

But not all. A visit to the Kibera slums on Wednesday showed her the other side of the coin, one away from the constant traffic jams and packed restaurants.

Although the poverty and the harsh living conditions bothered her, the mad structures and the burst sewers are not what got to her the most.

“Some of the people I met during my visit seemed content with their lives as they are. We may put in millions of dollars in aid to try and make life a little bit better for Kibera residents. But if the desire for change does not come from within them, it will be a futile exercise,” she said.

For her, change can only come from within.

“We need to confront our excuses instead of using them as get-out-of-jail cards. For instance, as a country you cannot always keep complaining of colonialism that ended decades ago. And, as the electorate, you cannot keep talking about bad leaders: elect good ones,” she said. “This is the only way progress will be arrived at.”

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