Some people are obvious candidates for political appointments: connections galore and a closet full of power suits. Hallie Montoya Tansey, 29, is not one of those people, but she’s now a confidential assistant in the Department of Education. Until August, she lived in a rowhouse in DC’s Columbia Heights neighborhood with four other young political appointees and a political consultant, none of whom has taken a traditional path from San Francisco, where they met, to Capitol Hill (two have since moved out). They are part of a generation of experienced, progressive young organizers the Obama campaign tapped into, evidence that the extraordinary youth engagement in the election didn’t materialize from thin air.
Montoya Tansey’s personal political epiphany came when, after being laid off from her gig as a music teacher, she volunteered for Matt Gonzalez, a Green Party candidate for mayor of San Francisco. “I never thought candidates who believed in what I believe in could get elected,” she says of the 2003 campaign. “I worked seven days a week for free. It’s an addictive feeling to realize that you can engage on your own terms.” Gonzalez lost, but Montoya Tansey, 29, was hooked. She took a job as field director for the League of Young Voters, engaging youth in politics. She joined the Obama campaign when fellow Gonzalez campaign veteran and current housemate Nicole Derse recommended her for a field organizing position in Nevada.
Derse, who grew up in conservative Slinger, Wisconsin, has been an activist since she was a teenager. She moved to San Francisco in 2001, and got a job on the city’s Youth Commission, mentoring its young members to become advocates on their own behalf. While she was there, Derse volunteered on the Gonzalez campaign and met Montoya Tansey. “I was disappointed when he lost, but I loved the intensity of campaigning,” she says.
She went on to staff positions on several local campaigns, and as the field director for Power Pac she worked with grassroots organizations to increase voter turn out. When she read The Audacity of Hope, she decided that if Barack Obama ran for president, she wanted in. “He came to politics through organizing the same way I had, working with a community and realizing the need to expand power,” she says.
Derse was one of the campaign’s early hires, and once she started, there was a domino effect: she recommended Hallie Montoya Tansey, who, once hired, lured her twin sister Jenny and her friend and fellow Teach for America veteran Kevin Liao, who was tired of working for local government in San Francisco. “I was worn down by the divisiveness between the left and the far left,” he says. By the end of the campaign, about ten of their friends were working overtime for Obama.
Five of them were on staff together for the general election in Wisconsin, where Derse was the field director, a k a everyone’s boss. There was a healthy competition between the friends. “I was a monster!” says Liao, who was a regional field director. “We had a productive competition,” says Jenny Montoya Tansey, also a regional field director.
Early in the primaries, Hallie Montoya Tansey had decided that if Obama won, she would be “happier than on my hypothetical wedding day but not quite as happy as when I hypothetically have kids.” On November 5, her prediction came true. Soon after, she, her sister, Liao, Derse, their consultant housemate Seiji Carpenter and another San Francisco friend were sitting in Genna’s bar in Madison, Wisconsin, when someone asked where they were going next. Hallie Montoya Tansey was surprised to hear that Washington was the most popular answer.
The group applied for jobs in the administration. Derse was appointed training director for Organizing for America in February, and in April, she found the house. Jenny Montoya Tansey started as a special assistant in the USDA the same month. Hallie Montoya Tansey got a position as a confidential assistant to the chief of staff of the Department of Education in May. Liao joined the Department of Education as a confidential assistant in June.
Though working in Washington has been an adjustment after years of working outside it–in more ways than one–they’re adjusting. “Going away from San Francisco made me realize so much more about where the country’s at,” says Hallie Montoya Tansey. “I’m not interested in talking about what the righteous thing to do would have been. I’m interested in what I can do.”