Chiefs of Staff in the spotlight at the Fels Institute


The panel discussion focused on the role chiefs of staff play in managing politicians' careers


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Photo by Luke Chen


For one night, the men and women who quietly keep politics moving received their moment in the spotlight.

Approximately 125 people attended a panel hosted by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government titled “Hail to the Chiefs (of Staff),” a conversation with three current or former chiefs of staff to politicians, at the National Constitution Center last night.

“The goal of the night is all about learning how things get done in politics,” said Fels Institute Director of Marketing and Strategic Initiatives Lauren Cristella.

The three panelists were Matthew Gallagher, chief of staff to Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and a 1997 Fels Institute graduate; Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to former First Lady Laura Bush; and 1994 Fels Institute graduate David Urban, who was chief of staff to former Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.

Specter, a 1951 College graduate, died on Sunday at the age of 82. He was the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history, and his career stretched from “the Warren Commission to the Stimulus,” as the moderator, Scott Detrow, noted.

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The three panelists echoed each other on what it’s like on the job.

“The pressure and the blame don’t fall on you,” McBride said. “It falls on [the politicians], and you have to protect them from that.”

“There’s a political dimension to the job, and anyone who says otherwise isn’t being honest,” Gallagher said.

The evening was a part of the Fels Institute’s ongoing “Practically Speaking” series, which honors the Institute’s 75th anniversary. Past topics this year have included transportation and what is at stake in the 2012 election.

The Fels Institute collaborated with the National Constitution Center to make this event possible.

“Partnering with the National Constitution Center and opening the event up to the public is a great opportunity to spread our message,” Fels Administrative Coordinator Ian Semmler said.

A recurring theme throughout the night was how the chiefs of staff have helped the politicians they work for respond to unexpected events, such as 9/11 and the 2001 Anthrax attack on the Hart Senate Office Building.

“When there’s a major event — be it a prison riot or a horrible weather event — one of the first things the media’s going to do is pick up the phone and see what [the politician] thinks,” Gallagher said.

Temple University sophomore Steven Pavel reflected on what he took away from the panel. “It really widened how I thought about politics,” he said. “It’s not just about the candidates, but also the people behind them.”

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