Rochelle Dornatt worked on Capitol Hill for more than three decades. Her vast experience in the House included constituent service and legislative work in Member offices, opposition research for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and counting votes on the House Floor for Majority Whip Tony Coelho of California. She went on to spend 24 years as chief of staff for California Congressman Sam Farr.
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.
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.”