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By Nicole Duran, Photos by Susana Raab

Published Apr 1, 2010 8:15 AM


In Washington, everyone's got an agenda. But not everyone can claim a Bruin legacy. In our nation's capital, UCLA alumni are making a difference in the media, on the Hill, in the White House and elsewhere. We asked some of the more prominent D.C. Bruins what political life is like — and how their time in Westwood prepared them for careers in the most powerful city on earth.

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A former newsman, J. Jioni Palmer '98 now works for the Congressional Black Caucus and says while political gridlock grabs the headlines, bipartisanship is still alive in Washington, D.C.

Washington D.C. is and has been for some time the epicenter of a strange malady known as "Potomac Fever," and the nation's capital is teeming with Bruins suffering from it. More intoxicating than fame, more addictive than drugs, this highly contagious condition draws smart, ambitious people who want to make a difference to the Beltway — Washington-speak for the Capital Beltway, Interstate 495, which encircles the capital and is shorthand for all things political — and never lets them go.

Not every UCLA alumnus in D.C. grew up wanting to be president. Most, in fact, weren't even politically active on campus. But they all caught Potomac Fever one way or another, and now they spend every day trying to improve our government, better our country and strengthen our democracy by pursuing their individual passions.

While Beltway Bruins don't all share the same ideology or careers, they have three things in common: They are here because they believe in the work they do; they wear paths down the most powerful corridors in the world; and what they miss most about UCLA — and dislike about D.C. — is the weather.

The Road to Washington

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Working for the First Lady is challenging but rewarding for Camille Johnston '90, who has seen the Beltway from inside as a public servant and outside in the public sector.

Now serving as Michelle Obama's spokeswoman, Camille Johnston '90 wasn't sure what she was going to do with her political science degree upon graduation. Though she was not active in politics, on or off campus, she nonetheless took a job on the short-lived '92 presidential campaign of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). The connections she made led to a spot as Iowa press secretary for the victorious Clinton-Gore campaign. From there she has held a slew of jobs both inside the Beltway and in the private sector, including communications director to then-Second Lady Tipper Gore.

"You get to be a part of important things," Johnston explains about why she keeps coming back to public service. "It's nice to work on something that you really believe in, and for people whom you really believe in. I always feel like my work makes a difference. Working for the first lady is really working for the family; you really do feel a responsibility for the family [and] knowing how important it is that kids be allowed to be kids, no matter who their parents are."

Meet a couple more Bruins bringing blue and gold to the White House. Actor Kalpen Modi '00 and documentary filmmaker Jason Djang '97 didn't expect to end up in the White House. Learn how they got to the Hill, why they love it and whether they've been able to apply lessons from UCLA to their work in the "real world."

Todd Harris '93, a top Republican strategist who has worked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, 2008 Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, claims that he took up politics "out of spite."

"My parents were Republicans, but I didn't really know what it meant," he explains. "I had a friend who was a Democrat and his whole family was and they'd say these horrible things about Ronald Reagan. I didn't know how to defend myself, but I'm really stubborn and don't like to lose arguments so I started reading up on the political parties."

Harris interned at the Republican National Committee in the summer of 1992. When he returned to L.A., he became active in state politics, volunteering, attending party conventions and eventually working for the California Republican Party. But it was the monumental recall of former Gov. Gray Davis that really earned Harris his stripes.

"It was a political earthquake," he says. "We were at the center of the political universe for two months; it was a hell of a ride. We worked so hard and our hours were so long, we use to joke that everyone in the political world who was not involved in the recall campaign was doing everything they could to get in, and everyone who was involved was doing everything they could to get out."

Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana '82, assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the Education Department, still can't believe she's here. Her path, which started in the classroom, seems natural enough, especially given that being an educator runs in her family. Her grandmother was a teacher and administrator in Mexico. Meléndez didn't grow up speaking English as her first language, and a high school guidance counselor told her she wasn't Bruin material.

"I graduated cum laude and I almost didn't go," she recalls from her office overlooking Independence Avenue, an eraser's throw from the National Mall, striking a tone of wonderment rather than self-aggrandizement.

She began as a teacher in the Montebello and Pasadena, Calif., unified school districts. She has been a university professor, an administrator, a manager at education-related foundations and, ultimately, superintendent at Pomona Unified, where she won the California Superintendent of the Year award. Coincidentally, President Obama visited Pomona students during a trip last year before Meléndez joined his team.

"The president made clear he wanted his secretaries to hire people they wanted to hire," Meléndez says about how she came to serve in the administration. "It speaks to the openness of this administration." She met Secretary Arne Duncan through her foundation work and was so impressed with him that when he asked her to leave California, she did, and took a pay cut for the chance to work with him.

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