“ . . . [I]n 1988, leadership was putting together the staff to go to the [Democratic National] Convention in Atlanta that year. All the guys were getting their travel arrangements made, and getting ready to go, and they were doing pre-convention meetings, and I’m like, ‘Well, what am I, chopped liver?’ I went to Tony [Coelho] and I said, ‘I think I ought to go to the convention.’ And he just—same thing—looks at me and goes, ‘Well, yes, of course.’ But somebody had to tell them. The guys didn’t think about it. I was the afterthought, and I think it’s because I was the girl. But they were all friendly. We were all friends. It was an attitude that needed to be changed. I was constantly poking them to change it.”
— Rochelle Dornatt, January 18, 2017
For more than 35 years, Rochelle Dornatt was enmeshed in nearly every aspect of lawmaking as a legislative assistant, researcher, floor assistant, and chief of staff on Capitol Hill. Dornatt’s vast experience on the Hill provides a unique vantage point to explore the inner workings of Congress. In this oral history, she reflects on her long career in the U.S. House of Representatives and the changing role of women in American politics during her time in Washington, DC.
Dornatt spent most of her career working in Member offices, including 24 years as chief of staff for California Congressman Sam Farr from 1993 to 2017. In this interview, she describes her diverse responsibilities as a congressional staff member, including constituent service, legislative work, campaign organizing, and office management. As research director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 1986 midterm elections, Dornatt provides a first-hand account of the rise of opposition research in congressional politics. She also discusses her experiences corralling votes as floor assistant to House Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California in the late 1980s. Throughout, Dornatt emphasizes the ways women on Capitol Hill faced formidable obstacles in their pursuit of new opportunities and equal treatment in the workplace.
In 1979, Rochelle Dornatt left Detroit, Michigan, for Washington, DC. For more than 35 years, she worked as a legislative assistant, researcher, floor assistant, and chief of staff for Member offices and party leadership, primarily in the U.S. House of Representatives. Throughout her career, she used her impressive skills to traverse organizational and institutional boundaries, forging a record of leadership, innovation, and legislative achievement.
Born in 1955, Rochelle S. Dornatt was the daughter of Dolores Dornatt, a homemaker, and Zenon Dornatt, an autoworker. In the 1970s, she was inspired by the possibility of affecting change through legislative work while studying political science at Marygrove College in Detroit. After her first government job as a legislative liaison for the Department of Commerce in the President James Earl “Jimmy” Carter Jr. administration, Dornatt moved across town to Capitol Hill to work as a legislative assistant for Representative Jim Santini of Nevada in 1981. Two years later, Representative Kent Hance of Texas hired her as legislative director.
During the 1984 election, she spearheaded the opposition research efforts of the Hance campaign. She was then hired as research director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where she worked closely with the organization’s chairman, Congressman Tony Coelho of California and contributed to the Democratic gains in the 1986 midterm elections. When Coelho became House Majority Whip in 1987, Dornatt joined his leadership office. As a floor assistant in the Whip’s Office, she worked on the vote-counting operation on the House Floor.
After a brief interlude as legislative director for Senator Timothy Wirth of Colorado, Dornatt returned to the House as chief of staff for Representative Tom Sawyer of Ohio in 1991. After two years, California Representative Sam Farr hired her as chief of staff. For the next 24 years, Dornatt orchestrated reelection campaigns, managed staff operations, and played an integral role in enacting the Congressman’s legislative agenda. She maintained a legislative portfolio in addition to her management responsibilities, working on issues such as trade agreements, BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) policy, and Congressman Farr’s successful campaign to establish Pinnacles National Park in his district.
Throughout her career, Dornatt prioritized expanding the boundaries of acceptance for women staff members on the Hill. She pushed for equal treatment on the job, and created an informal support network for women chiefs of staff in the House Democratic Caucus called the “Sister Chiefs.” Reflecting on the resistance she encountered in her struggle for gender equity in the workplace, she concluded that it “was an attitude that needed to be changed. I was constantly poking them to change it.”
"I Wanted to Break Out"
Rochelle Dornatt discusses education and employment expectations for women.
Rochelle Dornatt recalls pay inequities in the workplace.
"Let Me Talk to a Man"
Rochelle Dornatt remembers adjusting to different office cultures on the Hill.
Rochelle Dornatt describes conducting opposition research for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 1980s.
"I Was the Afterthought"
Rochelle Dornatt remembers her struggle for equal treatment in the workplace.
Accessibility at the Democratic National Convention
Rochelle Dornatt remembers the significance of accessibility issues at the 1988 Democratic National Convention.
Rochelle Dornatt explains the importance of proper office attire for women working on Capitol Hill.
Not Designed for Women
Rochelle Dornatt explains the obstacles waiting for women working in the Capitol.
Americans with Disabilities Act
Rochelle Dornatt recalls her role in crafting the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Any Good Chief Knows Their District"
Rochelle Dornatt discusses her leadership strategies as chief of staff.
"The Sister Chiefs"
Rochelle Dornatt describes her role in organizing a network for women chiefs of staff.