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Former staffers with Nita Lowey

Yesterday, Nita Lowey announced her decision to retire from Congress at the end of the current term.  In the hours since, countless leaders have offered public tributes to Nita’s service, all well-earned.  For Nita has, indeed, been a truly exceptional representative — effective, principled, tireless, often courageous — with an astounding record of accomplishment for our region and nation.  Few, if any, officials in Westchester’s history have achieved as much or enjoyed anything close to the same level of esteem and affection across a span of decades.

I confess, however, somewhat selfishly, that my thoughts about Nita’s retirement have been less about the public record and more inward-looking, personal, even emotional.

Nita gave me my first job out of grad school as Deputy Campaign Manager for her 1992 reelection.  From there, I went on to join her staff, mainly as a speech-writer, beginning a professional relationship that continued in different ways for about 20 years, most of my adult life.  Outside of family, I can’t think of any person who has had a more profound impact on who I am today.

Some elected officials have a private persona that differs significantly from their public image.  Not so Nita.  Up close, as a boss, she is every bit the same kind, warm, empathetic — and, make no mistake, also tough and shrewd — figure that she appears to be from afar.  One telling memory: Nita visiting with a family who had just lost a child to a random act of violence.  I was “staffing” her, watching silently from a respectful distance.  With the family, she was strong and comforting, just what you would hope for from a leader in an impossibly difficult moment.  And then, afterwards, as we walked back to the car, her voice and composure broke as she murmured “he was a good kid.”  A small moment, almost trivial in the context of a career with so many towering achievements, and yet, for me, indelible and moving still now, even as I write.  There are too many people in public life who feign humanity with the spotlight on and snap into cold self-absorption with the spotlight off.  With Nita, the humanity is never, ever an act.

Because of these qualities, she fostered a fiercely loyal community of staffers over the years, who maintained relationships with her and with each other long after they had moved on to other positions.  Today, I can still count friends, many friends, good friends, whom I know through Nita.  And across this network, the news of Nita’s decision has fallen like a lightning bolt, prompting reflection, story-telling, laughter, tears, and, above all, gratitude.

It almost goes without saying that most of what I know about public service, I learned directly or indirectly from Nita.  And although I have never come close to matching her accomplishments, graciousness, energy, or uncanny ability to read people, I have tried my best.  If more of us in public life adopted Nita Lowey as a model, our world would be a far, far better place.

This is not a eulogy.  Nita is happy and healthy.  She has more than a year of hard and important work left in her term.  And, if there is any justice, she will have many years after that to enjoy life and family.  So it is not a time for good-byes.  It is a time instead to say a simple, heartfelt, fervent: thank you.

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