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Western New Yorkers thrive in the West Wing

WASHINGTON – If anybody ever yelled “Let’s Go, Buffalo!” in the West Wing of the Obama White House, five people would stand at attention.

That’s how many Buffalo-area natives work within steps of the Oval Office under President Barack Obama.

Three of them help hone the president’s message. Another helps prepare his daily briefing book. And another works with federal agencies to try to keep the government’s technology as modern as it can be.

It’s an unusual situation, to say the least, given that other recent presidents never had more than one or two Buffalo-area natives working in the West Wing at any one time – if that.

And while it’s nothing more than an accident, former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton – himself a Buffalo native – offered a possible explanation for his hometown’s outsized White House presence.

“Considering the fact that, at its core, Buffalo is a city of strivers, I’m not surprised that so large a number of Buffalonians ended up in the White House,” Burton said.

Four of those five Buffalo natives in the West Wing sat down for interviews with The Buffalo News on Tuesday. The fifth and one of the highest ranking – Shailagh Murray, a former Washington Post and Wall Street Journal reporter who serves as assistant to the president and senior advisor for strategic communications – got called into meetings and did not have time to participate.

But the others offered detailed portraits of a harried life made worth it by the contributions they can make to a president they believe in – and by the memories they’ve made that will last a lifetime.

Here’s a look at four of those Buffalonians at the White House:

Liz Allen, a Williamsville South graduate, now serves as White House deputy communications director and deputy assistant to the president. (Jerry Zremski/Buffalo News)

Liz Allen, a Williamsville South graduate, now serves as White House deputy communications director and deputy assistant to the president. (Jerry Zremski/Buffalo News)

Liz Allen

It’s probably no surprise that some people who work at the White House use “stress balls,” which they can squeeze or throw against a wall or stomp on to address their frustrations.
Liz Allen’s stress ball, a gift from her mother, is shaped like a buffalo.

And it probably gets quite a workout as Allen works with other presidential aides to craft President Obama’s communications strategy, which involves everything from planning his events and travel to deciding who gets to interview the president.

To hear Allen tell it, though, her job as deputy communications director and deputy assistant to the president is an astonishingly rewarding one. After all, she helped plan his historic recent visit to Hiroshima, Japan, where the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb near the end of World War II, as well as his visit to Vietnam and other presidential trips.

What’s more, she got to go on those trips.

“Every day’s a highlight,” said Allen, 31. “I’m very lucky to be able to witness history.”

A graduate of Williamsville South High School and the State University of New York College at Geneseo, Allen got her start in politics in 2008, when she served as associate director of operations at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. That launched her into jobs with the 2008 Obama campaign and the transition team, which in turn landed her a four-year gig in Vice President Joe Biden’s press office.

She traveled throughout the United States and to more than 30 foreign countries with Biden, but she said the trips that stand out the most are the three she made to Afghanistan and the one to Afghanistan where she saw Biden present a bronze star to an Air Force hero.

Allen later spent a year at the State Department, where she served as director of public affairs for educational and cultural affairs, before returning to the White House in 2015 – where, she said, she feels strangely at home.

After all, another Buffalonian, Desiree Barnes, sits just a few steps away, and she went to high school with Allen’s sister-in-law. Another Buffalo native, Greg Degen, works nearby as well, and his parents routinely walk their dog past the house in Williamsville where Allen grew up and where her parents still live.

“It’s a small world here,” Allen said.

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Megan Smith, OSTP, portrait taken during the commissioned officer portrait session in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, Sept. 30, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Megan Smith, OSTP, portrait taken during the commissioned officer portrait session in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House, Sept. 30, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Megan Smith

The White House may be situated 2,800 miles to the west of Silicon Valley, but Megan Smith has taken on the difficult task of bridging that gap and bringing the federal government into the modern computer age.

“If we’re a country that can come up with Amazon and Facebook and Google, we want our government service to be that good, too,” Smith said.

Smith came to the White House in 2014 to serve as U.S. chief technology officer and assistant to the president after spending several years at Google.

The Silicon Valley-to-Washington move was a somewhat unusual one, but Smith said it made perfect sense, in that both the nation’s tech companies and the Obama administration have a similar goal: what Smith calls “high level service delivery.”

To provide that, Smith works with the U.S. Digital Service – which she calls a tech team of more than 400 people that’s akin to the Navy Seals – to work with federal agencies to improve their use of technology.

To hear Smith tell it, plenty of good work is getting done. The Department of Veterans Affairs has improved its online service to the nation’s veterans. The State Department is bolstering its system for issuing visas. And the Department of Defense has a host of opportunities to turn technology to its advantage.

Smith works in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, so she’s a bit separated from the other Buffalonians who work in the White House communications operation.

But Buffalo is clearly on her mind. She grew up on the city’s West Side and graduated from City Honors School in 1982. And decades later, she still praises the school for launching her toward undergraduate and master’s degrees from MIT, and then a Silicon Valley career that included a stint as CEO of Planet Out, an online LGBT community.

Now 51, Smith still makes it back to Buffalo, where she takes pride in another Obama administration project: the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which led to the Buffalo River cleanup that’s prompted a revival of that waterway.

“It’s so awesome to see what’s happening there,” Smith said.

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Williamsville East graduate Greg Degen now serves as chief of staff to the Office of the Staff Secretary at the White House. (Jerry Zremski/Buffalo News)

Greg Degen

Nine years ago, Greg Degen was just another one of those college kids entranced by Barack Obama’s message – but now he’s one of the people responsible for compiling the president’s daily briefing book, which explains everything the president needs to know for his next day of work.

And it’s all because Degen acted on his inspiration.

A graduate of Williamsville East High School, Degen remembers getting hooked on politics by watching Tim Russert host “Meet the Press” on NBC, and getting hooked on Obama as he prepared his first run for the presidency.

“Like a lot of young people, I was inspired by his message of bringing about positive change in the country,” Degen said.

Degen landed an internship working to help Obama win the Iowa caucuses in 2008. That went so well that Degen dropped out of Ohio State University for a time to continue working on the campaign.

Eventually returning to school, Degen got a later internship at Obama’s Office of Congressional Affairs.

“That was a real good front-row seat to how the government works,” he said.

That internship launched a White House career that continues to this day. At 28, Degen now serves as chief of staff to the Office of the Staff Secretary, which is responsible for making sure the president knows what he needs to know.

“The staff secretary’s office puts together all the paper that goes to the president,” Degen explained. “We’re the ones who put together what he needs for the next day.”

The job means that Degen gets to go on about a third of the president’s trips, where, Degen said, he’s been able to watch as Obama has become the change agent he promised to be. For example, Degen got to accompany Obama on his historic recent trip to Cuba.

Degen’s decade with Obama will end when the president leaves office next Jan. 20, but Degen doesn’t want to think about that just yet.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “But I don’t want to take my foot off the gas and get distracted by what comes next.”

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Photo credit: Jerry Zremski/The Buffalo News Cutline for the fourth pic: Desiree Barnes of Amherst finds that one of the fringe benefits of working at the White House is time spent with the Obama family dogs, Bo and Sunny.

Desiree Barnes of Amherst finds that one of the fringe benefits of working at the White House is time spent with the Obama family dogs, Bo and Sunny. (Jerry Zremski/Buffalo News)

Desiree Barnes

Most of America knows Barack and Michelle Obama as the president and the first lady, but Desiree Barnes refers to them as “the family.”

And that’s because, over the course of eight years, she’s come to see the Obamas as exactly that.

“They came in as a unit and they will leave as a unit,” she said. “He’s always a dad first, and the first lady is always a mother first. That’s the way they’ve always been; they haven’t changed. And it’s something that all America can relate to.”

Barnes got to see the Obamas as family after getting a fellowship with the Obama campaign during her time at Fordham University, and then, more intimately, as an intern doing special projects for the first family during the presidential transition and 2008 inauguration.

That was just the start of a White House career that’s very different than the one Barnes – who once aspired to be a physician – ever envisioned.

“Still to this day I don’t consider myself political, but I like people,” she said. “I’m better with people than I am with science.”

Her people skills clearly helped during the years Barnes spent as a press “wrangler,” making sure that the pool of reporters who travel with the president actually stay with the president, and otherwise helping to coordinate the president’s media events, including his 2013 visit to Buffalo.

Now, at 28, Barnes serves as advisor and special assistant to White House press secretary Josh Earnest. She briefs Earnest before his daily news briefings and answers questions from reporters seeking information from the press office. Her work day begins at 6:30 a.m., and some of her days don’t really end, with her work continuing long into the night.

She’s traveled to more than 40 states and nearly 30 countries with the president, meaning she’s come a long way from Amherst High School.

And still, after all these years in the company of Buffalonians at the White House, she’s a bit mystified as to how they all ended up there.

“I’m not sure how so many Buffalonians came here to work for this president or this administration,” she said. “But I can tell you we’re pretty resilient people, and we make sure our voices are heard.”

email: jzremski@buffnews.com

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