Danny O'Brien '86
Danny O'Brien '86 (left) with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) at the Great Wall of China
From the jungles of South America to the halls of the U.S. Capitol, Danny O’Brien ’86 has made an impact in politics at home and abroad.
A native of Redlands, O’Brien is currently the chief of staff to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and staff director of the Foreign Relations Committee. Before that, he served as Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff and political director for his presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008, as well as a labor movement organizer in Latin America and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.
“I took an unorthodox approach to getting to where I am by going abroad for seven years; that’s not at all common among my peers in senior staff,” O’Brien said. “A lot of people get here in different ways and by different motivations. This is a town that offers tremendous opportunity for people who want to get involved and try to make a difference.”
Before making his way to Washington, O’Brien studied political science, Spanish, and history, and played tennis at the University of Redlands.
“My professors were fantastic,” he said. “My mom was an employee at the time, and we walked across the dais to graduate on the same day. I loved Redlands, and still love the town.”
O’Brien continues to support the University, visiting classes while he is in the area and welcoming students when they visit Washington.
“I’ve always tried to engage and host groups, and give them an overview of what’s going on in the Senate and potential careers in public service,” he said. “After I graduated I moved to D.C., and thanks to friends from the University of Redlands, I worked for a brief period at the Environmental Protection Agency before deciding to go to Latin America.”
O’Brien headed south, working with the AFL-CIO to develop and strengthen labor movements and democracies in Argentina, Panama, Brazil and Paraguay.
“It was a tremendous adventure and honor to be able to promote U.S. democratic values abroad,” he said. “We helped emerging democracies mature and develop in a way where they would be sustainable and viable for the long run. It was an incredible experience to go out and promote our values and institutions while at the same time working with organizations and leaders who were shut out of the political process.”
After seven years and a stint in Bulgaria, O’Brien returned to the U.S. and jumped into domestic politics. He worked on several Democratic campaigns around the country, and secured positions in the Clinton White House and with former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) before becoming chief of staff for then-Sen. Biden.
“What you see is what you get, and he is a great guy,” O’Brien said. “I’ve had the honor of working for very, very smart U.S. senators, guys who understand public policy, and the tremendous potential of our country as anyone in this business. It’s been a tremendous adventure and a real honor to be associated with them.”
O’Brien has been Sen. Menendez’s chief of staff for six years and took on double duty when the senator was named head of the Foreign Relations Committee, making O’Brien the staff director.
“Both positions are incredible because due to the variety and importance of the issues you work on every day,” he said. “What you do directly and indirectly impacts the U.S., the U.S.’s relationships around the world, and families across the country. It’s an incredible, humbling experience, being able to be involved in the legislative process and directly changing people’s lives, hopefully for the better. It’s tremendously consuming as well – long days, long weeks, and the years go by very quickly.”
O’Brien often reflects on the time he spent abroad in order to deal with situations he’s facing today.
“Those experiences absolutely inform a lot of what I do now on the Foreign Relations Committee,” he said. “Understanding the struggles and dynamics, the history, economic challenges, and political realities of other countries – those insights absolutely give me a grounding and understanding.”