October 28, 2009

SJU Graduate Chase Cushman '06 -Where’s Obama? Ask 'the Minnesotans’

Chase Cushman, Political Science Major, CSB/SJU ‘06

Where’s Obama? Ask 'the Minnesotans’

ERIC ROPER, Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 23, 2009

Only a handful of people have their hands on the president's daily schedule. In the Obama administration, four of them come from Minnesota -- a tightknit crew that helps plan almost every detail of the commander-in-chief's day.
They spent years bouncing from campaign to campaign together, in a happenstance journey that has landed them at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
"It's always a joke that it's the Minnesotans who have kind of taken over the scheduling office," said Chase Cushman. "And it's been that way since the [Obama] campaign."
Not long ago, Cushman's biggest worry was likely shaving seconds off his swim time as a student at St. John's University.
Now his responsibilities are weightier and on occasion can even put the 25-year-old associate director of scheduling in the Oval Office with President Obama and his advisers. Last spring Cushman was there to brief Obama on an upcoming trip to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
"You sit in a room with David Axelrod and like the guys that know stuff and they're looking at a kid from Monticello to ask him what they're doing," Cushman said.
But usually the Minnesota contingent operates behind the scenes, keeping people such as the communications team, advance planners and cabinet secretaries on the same page.
Working alongside Cushman is associate director of scheduling Lizzie Nelson, a 26-year-old Wayzata native who describes herself as "air traffic control" among the dozens of stakeholders at any given event. They create detailed timelines of the president's day two or three days in advance.
"As it gets closer to the time frame where you need to get down to the nitty gritty, that's sort of where we come in," Nelson said.
Deputy director and surrogate scheduler Joe Paulsen, 25, a Minnetonka native, coordinates with members of the cabinet when they participate in events with the president and keeps the rest of the White House updated on the cabinet's schedule. When cabinet members arrive for a public presidential event, it's usually Paulsen who greets them. He is also the son of Terri Bonoff, a Minnesota state senator who ran for Congress last year.
Their point of contact in the West Wing is St. Paul native Jessica Wright, 27, deputy director of scheduling. A University of Minnesota graduate, she focuses on Obama's schedule several weeks out, translating the goals of top advisers into a rough timeline.
"My job I would say is more just kind of taking all of the different things that people want to do and finding a way to make a day fit all of the different messages and all of the basic day-to-day things that we have to do," Wright said.
The influence of orderly Minnesotans in the administration extends beyond the president's scheduling staff.
Just down the hall from scheduling is Pete Selfridge, a 38-year-old Minnetonka native who leads advance operations for Vice President Joe Biden.
"They'll put the schedule on paper and then we make it real outside of the White House," said Selfridge, who began working in the White House more than 10 years ago, sorting invitations in Bill Clinton's scheduling office.
Long journey together
Many of the young Minnesotans on the White House staff have spent their entire careers in politics together.
Several met on U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's campaign. Wright was Klobuchar's personal aide, Paulsen worked in advance and Nelson coordinated volunteers. Cushman was the personal aide to DFL House candidate Patty Wetterling.
Paulsen, Wright and Nelson each moved to Iowa to join the Obama campaign, where Franny Starkey, formerly Klobuchar's director of scheduling and advance, was the Iowa trips director. Starkey is now Michelle Obama's director of scheduling and advance, working alongside Minnesota native Semonti Mustaphi, the First Lady's deputy press secretary.
After the Iowa caucuses, Paulsen, Nelson and Wright moved to Obama headquarters in Chicago, where Selfridge and Cushman were also employed.
"We've known each other for a while and our department is sort of a family," Nelson said. "We hang out outside of work. I mean they're my friends, they're my co-workers."
So how did so many Minnesotans end up in scheduling?
"We've talked about it before," Cushman said. "We just kind of thought maybe it's because Minnesotans are pragmatic, we like to plan things."
Every day in the White House brings its challenges.
"One of the things I like most about my job is that it's not very routine and every day is very different because the nature of what we're doing just changes constantly," Wright said.
Selfridge relies on a vast network of freelance advance planners around the country to help him arrange dozens of events a month. He spends most of his time coordinating the entire operation from Washington.
But working for the president and representing the United States also has its unforgettable moments.
Wright, who reports to the director of scheduling, recalled representing the United States during negotiations in Canada before the president's trip there in February.
"You sit on either side of the table and they talk about what they want to do and then they're like, 'United States delegation, what do you think?' " Wright said. "And I turned and everyone was looking at me."

Eric Roper • 202-408-2723