By Rochelle Dornatt
“Sisters are angels who lift us to our feet when our wings have trouble remembering how to fly.” “Not sisters by blood, but sisters by heart.”
Life on Capitol Hill was Rochelle Dornatt’s life. She loved (mostly) every minute of the almost three decades she worked there.
Dornatt began her distinguished career in public service in constituent services and legislative work at the U.S. House of Representatives. She provided opposition research for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and counted votes on the House Floor for (then) Majority Whip Tony Coelho, of California. She recently retired after serving as Chief of Staff for Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) for 24 years.
While the leadership meetings for senior staff were informative, they lacked details and depth. She noticed that it was a diverse group of women who served as Chiefs of Staff to highly ranked members, yet it was all white men leading the discussions at these meetings, parsing out information that was not particularly informative or helpful. The women wanted more. They wanted to know how each vote would help or hurt their members’ constituencies. They wanted details about the legislation and the consequences of each vote.
One day Rochelle asked another woman who was a Chief of Staff to stay after one of these staff meetings to explore the discussion in more detail. The next week a few more women joined. This informal group of female Chiefs of Staff continued to grow, and as it did, so did their understanding of each piece of legislation their bosses were about to vote upon, with the information coming from the women who served senior members of Congress, women who were privy to “inside info” that would provide guidance on the policy and politics of each bill and upcoming vote. She says the women attending “had your back and you could always get information (and learn) from each other 100% of the time.” This is why, in the late 1990s, she created an unofficial organization called Sister Chiefs, and it “evolved organically.” Besides supporting each other professionally by providing information to help them help their bosses, they established deep friendships. They trusted each other and bonded as a group.
After several months, Rochelle was called into a meeting in the House Minority Leader’s office to find out what the women were doing and why. She explained they were not “fomenting a coup or doing anything untoward.” They merely wanted deeper discussions about legislative provisions of various bills. She explained they wanted more background information and how each vote would affect their bosses’ constituencies. And, she told them the people running the regular meetings were white men. Where was the diversity? She said she wanted more women and people of color represented in the meetings. She made it clear in the meeting that day that she was not a troublemaker but instead, she was perceptive, focused, and looking to solve a problem she had observed. She had learned when men lead, sometimes you have to find a “work around” to get what you need. Over time, the diversity of presenters in staff meetings changed and a greater mix of people, voices and ideas were represented.
What held Sister Chiefs together, besides their friendships, was their commitment to excellence, professionalism and serving the people of their Congressional districts. In spite of this, while many had worked in their positions for years, they were still expected to provide coffee and to tolerate inappropriate language and/or touching. In addition, they often felt “stonewalled” when they asked for something like detailed information about policies being considered. While all they wanted was more accurate information that would lead to effective policy for the people in their districts, they were constantly challenged during the process.
As you can imagine, over time the Sister Chiefs group has evolved. With technological advances, the group benefited from changes in how information is received and shared. When Rochelle’s group began over 20 years ago, everything was on paper. Now, of course, everything is digital and information flows more quickly. Many of the first-generation Sister Chiefs have either retired or moved on, but some still work on Capitol Hill. However, the second and third generations still meet and support each other. In December 2018, they had a big holiday reunion, and hope to reunite in person after the pandemic.
Some groups form for a specific reason, and some exist for a season; others last for a lifetime. Sister Chiefs has done it all. What began as an effort to support and unite a small group of public servants now continues to empower new female Chiefs of Staff who have the same goal as their predecessors: to be the best Chief of Staff they could possibly be. When you hear of people working their entire lives on Capitol Hill, you may think of competitive, backstabbing and ambitious people who are out for themselves. That was never the case for Sister Chiefs.
They wanted knowledge about the background and future ramifications about vital legislation. When they didn’t get what they needed, they, as many women do, found a way…they found their “work arounds.” This led them to deep understanding of public policy and of the value of friendship and professional sisterhood.
For a full transcript of an interview in the archives of the U.S. House of Representatives and brief video, click below.
Take a look at Rochelle’s trapeze video https://www.ironbutterfliesproject.com/flying-high/
Rochelle Dornatt is a long-time player in congressional politics and policies who recently retired (sort of) after 35 years on Capitol Hill. She splits her time between Washington, DC where she continues to consult in the political realm, and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she tends a small farm. While working for Congress, Ms. Dornatt became noted for her tenacious negotiating skills and her zeal for serving the public. Her legislative accomplishments include shepherding the Americans with Disabilities Act through the legislative process; being at the forefront of legislation reforming campaign finance laws; and, amending DOD regulations to provide greater support for civilian communities negatively impacted by military base closure. On the farm she is an avid gardener, having just received designation of Master Gardener, and canner and also spends many evenings swinging in her porch swing.
Amid all this, she holds most sacrosanct the two hours a week she dedicates to trapeze work, believing you can’t get a higher high out of life than free floating upwards of 30 feet in the air.