A day in the life

February 14, 2010

WASHINGTON - Wearing a pink-colored suit jacket, a long gray skirt, black boots and a pink scarf, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen calmly positions herself for a photo with a visiting group between the New Hampshire and American flags.

The U.S. Senate photographer is standing by, and Shaheen's personal office transforms into a temporary photography studio. Her staff is efficient, ushering visitors in for a few moments and quickly showing them the exit.

It's a little after 8:30 a.m. on the morning of the State of the Union address, and dozens of eager individuals squeeze into a conference room in the back of Shaheen's office.

The first hour-long "coffee with Jeanne" event of the year has kicked off. Constituents and those with New Hampshire ties meet the senator and voice their concerns. Some 60 people, ranging from teenagers to the elderly, hope to grab a few minutes of face time with the freshman Democratic senator.

Dashawna Bourgault, 14, and Moriah Fergusen, 17, represent the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua. The girls traveled with 30 other women from New England to discuss issues affecting women.

For many, it was their first visit to the nation's capital. The women flew in the night before and planned to spend the remainder of the day visiting with other New Hampshire delegates and touring the White House.

"I'm really looking forward to seeing ideas we come up with put into action, because this is where it all happens," said Christina Hughes, 18, a student at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Shaheen, who celebrated her 63rd birthday last month, has been a strong supporter of women's issues throughout her political career. The first woman from New Hampshire elected to the U.S. Senate (joining 16 other women) and the first female governor, Shaheen is a pioneer for advancing women in political roles.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Ala., sits on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources with Shaheen, but their relationship grew outside work through several women-only Senate dinners.

"I've been impressed with her very gracious style," Murkowski said. "She is not overt and showy, but she has a manner about her that is just kind of a quiet confidence."

"It's fair to say she has been a very welcome member of the women's group in the Senate," said Murkowski, who said she hopes to see more Republican women join the Senate. "She has a personal style about her that is very warm and comfortable."

Each day, Shaheen, of Madbury, looks forward to seeing New Hampshire faces in Washington and working on the challenges facing the country.

"The work we are doing through the committees, the effort to put together an energy policy in this country," Shaheen said, "that's going to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, help people with the cost of heating their homes, and help create new jobs. This issue is part of a revolution that will change the world."

Her colleagues recognize the importance Shaheen places on energy independence. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., didn't know Shaheen until she made it into Congress, but says he's now a big fan.

"I think she is quiet and forceful at the same time, and it has been very effective," Sanders said. "Unlike me, she is not a loudmouth, but she makes her points very clearly whether in the caucus or in the committee."

They share a common interest in strategizing ways to create jobs in New England using biomass in an environmentally sound manner while cutting greenhouse gases and emissions and saving taxpayers money, he said.

Signs that Shaheen and her staff are still adjusting to Washington are evident in the office space once occupied by Idaho Sen. Larry E. Craig in the Hart Senate Office Building. It's a work in progress, said Nell McGarity, Shaheen's media spokeswoman.

They recently painted the office walls gray and replaced the carpet. A large, flat-screen TV tuned to MSNBC hangs on the wall among several photographs depicting traditional New Hampshire scenes.

By 9 a.m., most of the visitors have left, and three of Shaheen's aides gather around her to discuss the next scheduled event. McGarity, grants coordinator Mike Firestone and legislative assistant Chris Neary accompany her to a committee on infrastructure.

Clutching a small binder and her BlackBerry, Shaheen leads the way to the Capitol.

"We are walking, and what are we talking about?" Shaheen says to Firestone, who then briefs her on the upcoming meeting.

It's less than 10 minutes to the Capitol with the assistance of the underground subway system that connects the House and Senate buildings.

Shaheen's favorite area of the Capitol is the Brumidi Corridor on the first floor of the Senate wing, home to ornate art.

"Sometimes you get so busy here that you forget to stop and look around and think about the history of not just the Capitol, but the country and the foresight that the men and women who built this country had," Shaheen said, "and hope that you can come close to that."

Today, security is increased twofold inside the Capitol, with an officer at nearly every corner. Shaheen flashes her ID for the guard and walks past. Her staff follows, but not without being stopped.

"They are with me," Shaheen says, but the security guard pays no attention. Even a senator doesn't have enough clout to slip through heightened security.

Firestone and Neary join Shaheen in the private meeting. McGarity, who usually attends the public meetings, returns to the office.

Shaheen's Senate schedule is packed with committee meetings, meet-and-greets and receptions. The general flow of things this morning is typical, McGarity said.

The senator arrives at the office by 8:30 a.m. and by 9, her 22 staffers have scheduled the day, although it's guaranteed to change at any moment.

Shortly before noon, Shaheen returns to her office and meets with nine new spring interns, most of whom are college students. They've been sitting at a conference table with a staff member waiting for the senator to join them.

The nervous tensions are palpable.

An aide brings Shaheen a cup of tea, and the interns introduce themselves. Some interns describe their aspirations to run for political office, while others simply want to serve a female senator.

Maxwell Nunes, of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., is a freshman at George Washington University and worked on Shaheen's 2008 campaign, when she beat Republican incumbent John Sununu. He wanted to extend his support for her.

An intern asks how she balances life as a senator.

"It's a constant struggle, but the longer I am here, I get a better assessment of my priorities," said Shaheen, who usually flies to New Hampshire late Thursday night and stays through Monday morning.

When at home, she enjoys walks outdoors and snowshoeing. Most of her time is spent with her family and seven grandchildren.

Even her experience as a three-term governor and other political leadership roles couldn't entirely prepare her for the job as a U.S. senator. Shaheen, who says she's a direct descendant of Pocahontas, says her knowledge of New Hampshire government helped, but that the two jobs are like comparing "apples and oranges."

The most unexpected event over the last year was the health care reform bill, said Shaheen, who's in favor of an overhaul. Senators were required to stay in Washington between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and subsequently held the second-longest session in Senate history to pass health care reform.

A series of events were planned leading up to the Copenhagen conference on climate change, an important issue to Shaheen, who sits on the Senate energy committee. However, all of the events were canceled.

For the remainder of the day, Shaheen attends a Special Olympics reception and a bipartisan Senate dinner in the Capitol, which is then followed by the State of the Union address.

With one year behind her, Shaheen has a big agenda for the upcoming year that will focus on jobs and the economy. She has been appointed to the small business and foreign relations committees.

"My father always said to me the best thing you can do is to give someone a job and make sure they are working," she said, emphasizing that too many New Hampshire residents are struggling. "That's at the foundation of everything."

When asked if she was on target with her goals and to provide an informal self-evaluation, she said, "I'm not going to rate myself. Voters do that, and they do it very well.

"We've worked hard to put together an office that is responsive to constituents. One thing I think is best about the job is hearing people whose lives are better because they had a problem and we have been able to get in touch and help them deal with those issues."


By:  Jennifer DePaul
Source: Nashuat Telegraph