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From governor's daughter to White House official: Ellie Schafer cuts her own political path

WASHINGTON -- For close to 10 years, Barack Obama has been Ellie Schafer's boss.

Her journey with the Illinois senator who would become president started in 2006 when she worked on his book tour promoting "The Audacity of Hope."

Schafer, daughter of former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, was quickly drawn to Obama, his message, his policy positions, his skills as a leader.

"There was just something about him that I just felt that this is what the country needed," she said. "I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to get him elected."

Schafer spent 654 days on the road living out of a suitcase while she worked on Obama's presidential campaign. In the end, it turned out she had picked a winner.

"It's a pretty monumental thing," the 47-year-old said. "Not many people get that journey."

Schafer parlayed her dedication to Obama's campaign into an appointment as director of the White House Visitors Office, a post she's held since Obama became president.

Even though she's working for a Democrat, Schafer's Republican father said it's been a thrill to see her blossom in the national political realm. He credits her success to her talent for building relationships.

"She, from day one, was always sensitive to other people," he said. "She had a knack about her, a born gift of relating to others."

As director of the visitors office, Schafer manages the White House tour system and plans large events like Pope Francis' visit in September. Many consider her job to be one of the more powerful behind-the-scenes gigs in Washington.

But she doesn't see it that way.

"This is a privilege to be here, and I think that keeps you humble in this situation," she said. "I don't necessarily view it as having power. I view it as having a mandate from the president and first lady to make this an open and transparent White House."

Schafer said her office started out approving about 2 percent of the requests for tours and now that number is up to about 40 percent. Over the summer, a longstanding ban on visitors taking photos inside the White House was lifted -- a change that Schafer had a hand in, she said.

Schafer said the largest event the White House hosts is the annual Easter Egg Roll, which attracts 35,000 people.

Tickets for the event were once distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis. But first lady Michelle Obama wanted to give families more certainty about whether they could attend, so the visitors office devised a lottery system for tickets, Schafer said.

"To see the families, you know, going all over the South Lawn and running around and smiling and laughing, that's just awesome," she said. "To be able to create that experience for people, it's pretty neat."

A total of 4.8 million people have visited the White House during her tenure, and 3.5 million of those guests were there for a function the visitors office oversaw, said Schafer, who acknowledges her job is taxing.

"I didn't have an ounce of gray hair before I started working here," she said with a chuckle.

'A little soapbox'

Schafer was born in Grand Forks, and her parents divorced when she was young. So she ended up splitting her childhood between North Dakota, where her father lived, and Colorado, where her mother, Susan Gersick, resided.

Schafer grew up around politics, and even as a kid she'd voice her opinions on the issues.

"My mom always joked that she used to pull out the Tide box, so I could stand on it," she said. "I just had a little soapbox for, you know, pretty much everything."

After finishing high school in Colorado, Schafer went to the University of Denver where she studied communications. Her first job in politics was on her father's unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House in 1990. After that, she worked on his campaign for governor, an office he held from 1992 to 2000.

Schafer later moved to San Francisco, where in 1995 she founded a political consulting firm called Schafer Campaigns. No longer working for her Republican father, Schafer shifted from right to left and began consulting for big-name Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

Schafer eventually shut down her firm in 2007 to devote herself to Obama's presidential bid. She described the campaign experience as an emotional "yo-yo ride" that went up and down with Obama's standing in the polls.

When the ride finally stopped on election night, the outcome left her in disbelief. She recalls resting in bed the morning after, watching the "Today" show when the words "President-elect Barack Obama" came from the TV. That's when the win became real.

"You're just overwhelmed," she said. "Everything that you worked for was worth it."

With the end of Obama's second term on the horizon, Schafer said she's not sure what the future holds for her career. What's certain is that she's planning to visit Medora, N.D., next summer to see family and friends.

"I miss the people of North Dakota," she said. "I really do."

Father-daughter debates

From 2008 to 2009, Ed Schafer was the U.S. secretary of agriculture. As his time in the George W. Bush administration was ending, his daughter was just arriving in D.C. with the rest of Obama's staff.

Given the political divide between father and daughter, you might think they'd shy away from dinnertime debates. But neither can resist.

"We aren't afraid to lock horns with one another, but we respect each other and each other's beliefs and political philosophies," Ellie Schafer said. "We never make it personal."

Ed Schafer said he and his daughter agree on the direction they want the country to head, but they differ on how to get there. Because of their close bond, he said, they can have a debate and afterward say, "I still love you."

"It's the way you wish politics would work," he said.

One topic they don't debate is gay marriage, Ellie Schafer said. For her, it's a personal issue: In September, she married a woman named Heather Rothenberg, the director of policy and federal projects for a transportation engineering and planning firm.

Ed Schafer, who attended the couple's wedding, said his background and beliefs put him at odds with the concept of gay marriage, which has been legalized nationwide. But in his daughter's case, he said, the end result is hard to dispute.

"I'm not real keen on gay marriage," he said. "On the other hand, I look at my daughter and say she's the happiest she's ever been. What's wrong with that?"

In 1997, as governor, he signed a bill that banned the recognition of gay marriage in North Dakota, and he released a letter saying the ban was not "an endorsement of discrimination."

While Ed Schafer is still not enthusiastic about gay marriage, he said his daughter's marriage has broadened his view of the issue.

"I understand it better from walking that path with her," he said. "That just gets you more open to it."

 
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