When Barack Obama takes office on Jan. 20, Americans will see a new first family move into the White House. But the Obamas won’t be the only family decamping to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. when power turns over on Inauguration Day.
Democratic lawyer Tom Donilon, his wife, Cathy Russell, and his younger brother Mike all appear headed for White House jobs — a remarkable development for any family, even a clan as stocked with Washington heavyweights as this one.
The Obama-Biden transition team announced Tuesday that Mike Donilon, an experienced political consultant, would be counselor to the vice president.
Just four days earlier, on Friday, Cathy Russell was named chief of staff to the second lady of the United States, Jill Biden.
And with a slate of national security appointments expected to come after Thanksgiving, Tom Donilon’s name keeps popping up as the likeliest contender for deputy national security adviser.
How has this trio ended up so close to the center of an administration promising an infusion of new blood? There are a number of reasons, but the most important is Joe Biden.
“Cathy goes back 20 years with Joe Biden, and Mike goes back even longer on campaigns; Tom goes back more than 20 years,” said a friend of the Donilon family who asked not to be named. “They stayed very close over the years with the Bidens, so that’s part of it.”
In a news release, the transition team noted that Mike Donilon had advised the Delaware senator since the early 1980s, and both Tom Donilon and Cathy Russell worked on Biden’s 1988 presidential run.
According to Democratic consultant Tad Devine, another longtime friend of the Donilons, it’s characteristic of the vice president-elect to surround himself with personal friends and family.
“I think he is someone who, you know, himself is very loyal to others and who generates a lot of loyalty in the people who work for him,” Devine said. “I think when you have those long-standing relations, it’s so much easier to give good, objective advice to someone.”
Even without their extensive Biden connections, though, the Donilons are well-credentialed to serve in a Democratic White House. Mike has worked on Democratic campaigns including Doug Wilder’s Virginia gubernatorial run in 1989, Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s independent expenditure efforts in the 2008 election cycle.
Tom, meanwhile, entered Democratic politics in the 1970s, working for Jimmy Carter as a college student. He held senior positions in the Clinton administration, serving as chief of staff in the State Department and assistant secretary of state for public affairs. Cementing his Washington insider status, he also spent time as a vice president at Fannie Mae.
Cathy Russell’s pedigree is no less impressive, featuring stints as a senior aide to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, staff director on the Senate Judiciary Committee and top-ranking official in the Clinton Justice Department.
As remarkable as it might be for a single family to occupy a trifecta of influential White House jobs, Donilon family friends suggested it would be even more surprising if they didn’t end up in the new administration.
“As long as I’ve known these people, it’s hard to imagine them not being involved in the federal government in a significant way,” said the Donilon friend who did not want to be identified.
Devine agreed: “They’re people, at heart, who care very deeply about what’s happening in this country.”