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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Top Aide to Biden, Bono, and Blago Comes Home

Sheila Nix has worked with a charitable rock star, a disgraced former governor, and a—possible?—future president and first lady. Here’s what she said about all of them.

Nix (center) was Jill Biden's (right) chief of staff after working for the 2012 reelection campaign.  Photo: Official White House Photo by David Lienemann

I met Sheila Nix, 55, at the South Michigan Avenue offices of anti-hunger group Tusk Montgomery, where she has recently been appointed president. If the name Tusk rings a bell, that’s because Bradley Tusk was Rod Blagojevich’s first deputy governor; his successor in that job was Sheila Nix. Both of them got out before Blago was arrested. Nix certainly doesn’t like to advertise that association.

It’s understandable, and she doesn’t need to, because her resume is loaded with so many other jobs—chief of staff to Senators Bob Kerrey and Bill Nelson, campaign manager to Joe Biden, chief of staff to Jill Biden, deputy assistant to Barack Obama.

The mother of three, graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, married to a lawyer, she has shuttled her family between D.C. and Chicago—she grew up in Portage Park and then Palatine—but now says she is happily settled in to her home in Oak Park, with her youngest in high school, her middle child in college studying systems engineering, and her first-born working on the gubernatorial campaign of Chris Kennedy.

I got interested in Nix because of my continuing interest in Joe Biden and his on again/off again romance with the White House. I didn’t know what to expect from the interview: Unlike most people I know who run politicians’ offices and campaigns, Nix keeps a low profile, although she says that’s not on purpose. If there’s one word to describe her, it’s sunny. She’s blonde, petite, pretty, and the daughter of Irish immigrants. Her conversation reveals a true affection for Dr. Biden, as Nix calls her, the woman for whom she happily worked until January 20, 2017.

She answered all my questions and often laughed through the answers—not an irritating or phony laugh, but the laugh of an optimist who’s comfortable in her skin. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Joe Biden said last January, conceding that he’d be 78 on inauguration day in 2021, “I’ll run if I can walk.” Do you think he’ll run?

I don’t know, we’ll have to see how he’s feeling at that time.

Did Jill want her husband to run in 2016? She has said that he would have been a great president, and based on her remarks I have the sense that she regrets the decision not to run.

I just think it was a very difficult time for them after Beau died and I think they made the right decision for their family at that time.

Nix (center) with the Bidens on the day before the 2012 electionPhoto: Courtesy of Sheila Nix

So tell me about her. You were working for Bono’s One campaign and you left him for her?

It was a hard decision to leave One, but it was a great opportunity to be back in Chicago in 2012 and also work for the Obama reelection campaign. I worked on the VP part it, so I traveled with him on the campaign and got to know Jill, and really liked her. I helped organize the Bidens’ part of the inauguration, and when it was done, I was talking to the VP about possibly working in his office. In the middle of talking to him about what I might want to do, I got a call from Dr. Biden and she said, “I know you’re talking to Joe, but…” Her chief of staff had just left, and I took the job.

How did that work out?

It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. She’s normal, down to earth. She cares a lot about education, military families. She’s interested in some of the women’s and girls’ issues in Africa and around the world. Dr. Biden is a community college professor who teaches writing to kids at Northern Virginia Community College. When we would travel, she always had a big bag of papers to grade. She’s still teaching now.

I found her insistence on the Dr. title pretentious.  When it’s just the two of you, do you call her Dr. Biden?

No, no, although most of us called her Dr. B, including her students. A lot of them are from refugee and immigrant families, and they often don’t know that she’s the second lady. She tells the story of one of her students saying, “Dr. B, I saw you on TV with Michelle Obama and I said, ‘Mom, mom, that’s my English teacher.’” And her mom said, “That’s not your English teacher, that’s the second lady of the United States.”

Tell me about your time with Blago.

When Rod was first elected governor in 2002, I was kind of excited because I wanted to come back to Chicago and he was the first Democratic governor in 24 years. I didn’t know him. I ran into him and his team at the Democratic convention in Boston in 2004 and I ended up interviewing with them.

I know you don’t want to talk about him, and he’s become a villain—a cartoon villain. Did he do anything that was good?

Yes, health care and policy work around children. He was one of the first governors to talk about covering all kids. The insurance & health care problem that we still talk about so much, you know he was an early advocate of getting that fixed. I worked on All Kids and I’m proud of that. We actually got it done. And the other part was transportation, open toll roads; people forget that you had to stop at the toll booth. Now everyone can drive right through.

When you left the Blago administration, did you have a sense that things were turning dark?

No, not really. I was there almost four years at that point. I was exhausted. And then the Obama campaign was getting started and [political strategist] Pete Giangreco wanted someone to come and help them with direct mail. I went there in at the beginning of 2008.

Bono and his One campaign coaxed you to make a quick detour?

I got recruited. They were looking for a U.S. executive director who had campaign, government, policy, and communication experience. It was great for me because it took something from everything I had done and I also got to advocate for health care in Africa. It was a long interview process and the last interview was with Bono. We traveled to Africa: mostly Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Tanzania. I was there for three years and then I got a call from the VP’s office.

Nix in Malawi while working on the One campaign.Photo: Courtesy of Sheila Nix

What’s Bono like?

He is actually incredibly knowledgeable and he’s been involved in issues around Africa for a long time. And I remember going up to the Hill with him to do meetings, and senators would ask him some questions that could be answered superficially, and he would go into detail. He’s a really fabulous, genuine person. After my first trip with him up to the Hill, we got in the car to go back to office. I guess I was too used to working for politicians; when you get in the car the first thing they say is, “We should have done this, we should have done that. That wasn’t right.” And he just said, “Thank you, Sheila, those were really great meetings.”

Did you go to the Trump inauguration?

Yes, I sat right behind Rudy Giuliani. It was kind of surreal. I started the day in Jill’s office. We walked in, turned in our IDs, and that was it. You know that change is coming, but it still feels really abrupt. I flew back that night to Chicago to go to the Women’s March the next morning. I took my younger daughter to that.

Which Democrat do you want to see run for president in 2020?

I have an allegiance to Joe Biden. But I think back to Obama winning in ’08; nobody would have predicted that. We may be in a situation of having somebody nobody is thinking about right now.

What are you working on in your current job?

Expanding registration and voting. One of the things we’re focusing on is voting by phone. Yes, it will be a fight with Republicans, but there are some states with large rural populations that are interested in something like this; red states where it’s hard for folks to vote.

If you could write your own job description, what would be your dream job?

I like running things and building things, putting a team together. It could be something around mobile voting or health care; trying to get us to place where health care functions well for a majority of people in the United States. I would love to be part of that.

Did any of your children inherit the political bug?

My son, who’s 24, worked on the Democratic convention in Philadelphia last year. And then he did press advance for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He recently started at Chris Kennedy’s campaign.

Finally, last and least, I noticed that you made The Hill’s 2015 list of the most beautiful people working in politics in DC.

I think they want diversity in people they pick. They were looking for the over-40 person. (Nix was 53 at the time.)

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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