Two Wonks and an Activist: Three Berkeley Alumnae Hold Senior Posts on Clinton Campaign

By Tom Kertscher

If it takes a village to win a presidential nomination, evidently it helps if the locals include a veteran policy advisor, a civil libertarian and social justice warrior who ran a law school at 29, and an advocate who is braced for battle over issues such as abortion. In other words, as they have been called in the national press, two wonks and an activist: Ann O’Leary, Maya Harris and Mini Timmaraju.

And evidently it helps if the trio took some learning from UC Berkeley.

All three helped craft and disseminate the messages that Clinton will highlight when she accepts the nomination Thursday at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, one week after Republican Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination in Cleveland.

Are O’Leary, Harris and Timmaraju heroic for shaping the policies that could help elect the nation’s first woman president? Maybe not to the villagers who aren’t big on Clinton’s government-heavy ideas for things such as paid family leave and debt-free college education.

But in terms of what Clinton, as well as O’Leary, Harris and Timmaraju believe in, the prospect of a left-of-center sea change has been roiling for years.

Clinton “has made defending and expanding opportunities for women and girls a central component of her platform,” said Timmaraju. Furthermore, “it has been a dream of mine to work to elect not just the first female president of the United States,” but one who “will put issues of gender equality front and center.”

Here’s a brief take on the Cal threesome.


Mini Timmaraju, women’s vote director

A self-described political activist, Timmaraju, who earned a B.A. in development studies/international area studies from Berkeley in 1995, has been called one of the most visible Asian-Americans in the presidential campaign. As the women’s vote director, her roles include interacting with female elected officials in Washington and national women’s groups, as well as building volunteer networks across the country. Timmaraju’s work was part of what led The Guardian to say Clinton had “gone full-on millennial female” to win the votes of younger women.

Timmaraju’s prior positions include chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Ami Bera (D-Sacramento) and leadership posts with Planned Parenthood, which helped prepare her to be a point person on abortion.

Timmaraju gained some media attention in April 2016. After Trump said Clinton was playing the woman card, the Clinton campaign created an actual woman card for its backers. Timmaraju wrote in an email to followers, “We’ve been hearing from supporters all over the country that they’d like a ‘woman card’ of their very own—to display proudly on a fridge or pull out of their wallet every time they run into someone who says women who support Hillary must not be using our brains.”


Ann O’Leary, senior policy adviser

O’Leary earned her J.D. from Berkeley Law in 2005, and is one of the two wonks in the trio. She has been connected to the Clintons since Bill was president, working in the White House and on Hillary Clinton’s staff both when she was First Lady and when she became a U.S. senator from New York. O’Leary joined the campaign staff in April 2015, working mostly from her Bay Area home (her husband is California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu). In August 2015, she co-founded the Opportunity Institute, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that advances “pragmatic, evidence-based solutions that will combat inequality and build stronger, more equitable ladders to success.”

O’Leary, who was named to Politico Magazine’s 2015 list of 50 top political thinkers, helped develop Clinton’s positions on paid family and medical leave, debt-free college education and welfare reform.

While in law school, O’Leary met daily with people who were hitting the legal five-year time limit for receiving welfare benefits. “It opened my eyes, my heart and my head to the unintended consequences and punitive nature of the welfare reform law,” O’Leary said. “And today I spend time on the campaign working on poverty and social mobility and thinking about how we need to reform the welfare laws to ensure that they do not punish those who are doing everything they can to get ahead, but still find themselves living in deep poverty.”


Maya Harris, senior policy advisor

At age 29, Maya became one of the nation’s youngest law school deans when she took the job at the Lincoln Law School of San Jose. The 1989 Berkeley graduate’s positions before joining the Clinton campaign also include vice president of the Ford Foundation’s peace and social justice program, executive director of the ACLU of Northern California, and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Her older sister, Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, is running in the Democrat vs. Democrat California U.S. Senate race.

Vox called Maya Harris one of the Clinton campaign’s most interesting hires, citing a paper she wrote that criticized politicians for not paying closer attention to women of color, a “voting bloc that is well on its way to becoming the majority of women voters overall,” she wrote. Harris’s roles include guiding Clinton’s approach to police reforms, ending mass incarceration and immigration reforms.

“You need the activism. You need people who are organized and willing to bring light to injustices in society,” Harris told Elle magazine. “And, on the other side, you need people who are shaping and advocating for the actual policies and structural changes that need to occur in order to address those issues. That’s where the politics and the political leadership matters.”

Tom Kertscher is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the author of books on two Wisconsin sports figures: Al McGuire and Brett Favre. Follow him on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.

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