Susan Kennedy, Chief of Staff

Fairfax resident is California's "CEO"



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Susan Kennedy likens her job to being CEO of a large corporation. In this case, though, the company is the State of California, “with the governor being chairman of the board.”

Kennedy, chief of staff to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says her job “is to make the state run on a daily basis,” a simple description that belies the complicated undertaking of managing not only the necessities of government but an energetic boss with a personality as big as his political agenda.

“Actually, the governor’s office is run like a corporation,” Kennedy says. “I have a legislative secretary who handles the governor’s legislative matters; a cabinet secretary who oversees health and human services, prisons and education; a legal affairs secretary; [and] then we have finance and research departments. Governor Schwarzenegger, as chairman of the board, makes final decisions and we carry out his directives.”

Kennedy has 185 people on her staff, equivalent to a midsize company, with all the accompanying headaches and heartbreaks—on which she clearly thrives. “There isn’t a better job in all of politics,” she says. “Bar none.”

A lesbian, recovering alcoholic and lifelong Democrat, 48-year-old Kennedy has been the Republican governor’s chief of staff for two years. She commutes daily to Sacramento from her hillside Fairfax home. She didn’t just happen into the job. It’s the result of an arduous 28-year climb up the precarious ladder of California politics.

After growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, she was drawn to Southern California in the late 1970s by the idealism of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. After two years of working on Hayden’s Campaign for Economic Democracy, she moved to the Bay Area and enrolled as an undergraduate at San Francisco State (she never graduated, but last year earned a bachelor’s degree via online courses from St. Mary’s College). Following successful stints with several liberal advocacy groups, she was named executive director of the California Democratic Party.

In the early 1990s, she worked to get both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer elected to the U.S. Senate and California Democrats to turn out for Bill Clinton’s race to the White House. In the late 1990s, she was Feinstein’s communications director; then she engineered Gray Davis’s decisive 1998 win over Dan Lungren for governor. After a stint as Davis’s deputy chief of staff, she was appointed (she jokingly uses the term “sentenced”) in 2003 to the state Public Utilities Commission, where she earned a reputation as a pro-business Democrat who could get things done.

Then came the 2003 recall election that put Schwarzenegger in charge. At first profoundly dismayed—“I hated him as much as any Democrat,” she says—Kennedy watched the governor at work during her time on the PUC and her attitude gradually changed. “First I grew to respect him, then to know him,” she says, “and I’ve come to love him.”

In December 2005, Schwarzenegger named Kennedy as his chief of staff. The move made political headlines. The governor had just lost his high-stakes special initiatives election and was facing a reelection battle within a year—and there was talk of “terminating the Terminator.” Pundits generally credit Kennedy with reversing his political fortunes.

She, in turn, credits the governor with bringing her back into politics. “After the horrible time of the recall, I was disillusioned,” she says. “I’d lost faith in the process and was ready to quit.” Today, in her third year of working with Schwarzenegger, she feels she’s “in the most exciting place in the world to be. This is a man who truly believes anything is possible,” she says. “And he has lived that belief.”

Some wonder, is Schwarzenegger’s objective to benefit Arnold or California? No question, he’s concerned about the state of California—and that’s what makes him unique. He’s received so many accolades from his other careers that fame is not what he seeks or craves. This allows him to risk failure like no politician I’ve ever seen. Most politicians are averse to failure because they have a career ahead of them and each position is a steppingstone. This man actually sees failure as nothing more than a learning experience on the road to victory. The governor doesn’t know failure in the way most people know failure. He truly learns from his mistakes. He just picks himself up and he goes back and does it again. And if he doesn’t get it right that time, he’ll do it again. He’ll keep doing it until he gets it right. So in that context, failure is not something he understands. In all my years, I’ve never met anyone in politics who has that quality.