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When Polly Trottenberg (MPP 1992) initially filled out her Kennedy School application, she was asked if she was an "in and outer" - a term used at the school to describe people who move back and forth between government and other sectors.
"I wrote that I'd probably do a variety of things in my career, and I have," she says, describing jobs that initially centered on transportation and urban planning issues, which is what brought her to the Kennedy School in the first place. But she never expected to make her way into politics, despite being a self-described "political junkie." But that changed, thanks to "one magical course" as she describes it, taught by former Kennedy School Professor Shirley Williams.
"It was on electoral politics and I lucked out by having her," Trottenberg says. "At the time, she was spending a lot of time in Eastern Europe, working on emerging democracies. I thought she had brilliant insight and it got me thinking about a life in politics."
Nearly a decade later, that life in politics has made her a different kind of "in and outer" - one who stays within government but moves from the state side of government to federal side.
"I'm lucky in that I've worked for fascinating people on both levels," Trottenberg says, starting just after graduation with Massachusetts Senator Lois Pines, then-chair of the influential Committee on Commerce and Labor. "At the time, the Massachusetts economy was in terrible shape. We were working on an economic development bill, trying to come up with creative ways to use public service to spur the state's economy," Trottenberg says. "Luckily, Senator Pines would let us run with a lot of creative ideas."
Moving from a creative yet bare bones state operation to the more specialized federal level, Trottenberg then tried her hand working for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for a couple of years. "But I missed legislative work too much, so I decided to head to DC and pound the pavement." She landed a job as a transportation expert for former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), whom she describes as having a "truly unique intellect like no one else in politics."
After Moynihan retired, New York's newly elected Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) recruited Trottenberg to be his legislative director, which initially involved helping him build a brand new team. "It was a once in a lifetime chance in politics," she says. "Hiring an entire legislative staff from scratch is a phenomenal learning experience."
Today, as she continues her work on the Hill, Trottenberg contemplates whether or not she wants to herself run for office one day ("I have a thick skin, but not that thick") and promotes getting more women into politics ("My joke is that I'm going to keep working in the Senate until we achieve 50/50. At this rate, I'd better live to be 300").
Having found her niche "in" politics, she has no plans anytime soon to be on the outside. "It took me awhile to get here," she says, "but I feel truly lucky."
Photo: (L-R) former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY), Polly Trottenberg, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY)