How Kathleen Rooney Wrote O, Democracy!

Nine questions for the former Dick Durbin aide on her dishy new novel about an Illinois senator’s office.

Kathleen Rooney, 33, author of O, Democracy! Photo: Beth Rooney

When did you work for Senator Durbin?

I was an aide in his Chicago office from 2006 until 2010.

Your book, O Democracy!, reads like The Devil Wears Prada for the political set. How much is real versus fiction?

I don’t think I could give a percentage of what’s true and not true.

Were most of the incidents in the novel inspired by events that actually happened when you worked in Durbin’s office?

The texture and setting of the book are totally drawn from life. I’ve taken pains to draw a fictional curtain over the incidents.

What did you learn from working there?

Idealists are cannon fodder of the political industry. People most committed to making positive difference are exploited the most. People who do rise are interested in consolidating their own power.

In the book, aide Colleen Dugan describes the senator as “a drudge, not a gallant.” True for Durbin too?

That’s a fictional amplification for effect. Durbin’s public persona seems more variable.

Colleen says that the chief of staff makes physical contact, such as touching her hair. A 2009 essay you wrote on your flirty relationship with the senator’s then Illinois chief of staff [Mike Daly, according to Senate records] mentioned similar moves.

[Staffers in] D.C. saw a review of my essays in The Washington Post, [read the essay], and were shocked.

Colleen gets fired for “unauthorized contact with members of the media.” You got fired too. Why?

The official reason given by D.C. is that I had profited from my Senate employment—I was paid for the publication of the essay collection, and that book included essays that mentioned my employment as a Senate aide. I believe that the real reason I got fired is that I published an account of their operations that they didn’t have control over.

How much of the book’s chief of staff is based on the real one?

Again, I couldn’t put a percentage on it. That person does still work for the senator. [While Durbin concluded there had been no harassment, he transferred Daly to a nonsupervisory role.]

Have you been in touch with Durbin since your firing?

No. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hurtful to realize how easily he could just dispatch me. The senator was aware of [the director’s behavior] and didn’t really care. If you took it too seriously, that was kind of seen as whining: “This is what it is to work here. Suck it up and deal with it.”

Senator Durbin’s office confirmed that Rooney was fired for violating Senate ethics rules: failing to report outside income and using her position for personal gain.

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