“But one of the things is leave your ego at the threshold. When you cross that door, be prepared for anything, and nothing is beneath you. You can get your hands dirty. You can work in the trenches and you do everything you can to reach success. You set a goal and go. I was so fortunate to have this kind of public service opportunity and to work for this noble institution. Particularly for me, as a child of poverty, and to be able to walk these halls and serve this nation, and to work with the brightest minds and kindest hearts and the people that I have been so fortunate to be associated with and the opportunities that have opened for me. Create a fertile ground for opportunities, be malleable, be agreeable, but also know how to fight.”
—Judy Lemons, July 19, 2016
Growing up in a “dyed-in-the-wool” Democratic family led Judy Lemons to a career on Capitol Hill. From 1975 to 2002, Lemons worked for three Representatives from the same San Francisco district: Phil Burton, Sala Burton, and Nancy Pelosi. In her oral history, she traces her path from being a secretary for the National Parks and Insular Affairs Subcommittee (Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs) to chief of staff for Congresswoman Pelosi.
Lemons’ diverse legislative focus, ranging from National Parks to student visa laws, provides a unique perspective on how Members create, negotiate, and pass bills. Throughout the interview, she reflects on the careers of the Representatives she worked for, including their relationships with other Members, how seniority shaped their political life on the Hill, and the results of Phil Burton’s 1976 Majority Leader race and Nancy Pelosi’s successful 2001 campaign for Democratic Whip. Lemons describes the changing role of women staff in the House since the 1970s, including the significance of the 1992 election, known as the “Year of the Woman.”
Starting on Capitol Hill as a secretary, Judy Lemons worked for three Representatives from the same California district, eventually rising to the position of chief of staff. Over the course of her 27-year career, she learned the inner workings of the United States Congress and became a skilled advocate for the San Francisco community.
Born in 1945, in Santa Paula, California, Lemons is the youngest child of Anna (Clepper) and Elmer Lemons. During the first 10 years of her life, her family moved throughout California, residing wherever her father could find work as a manual laborer. The family built a home and settled in Bakersfield, California, where Lemons graduated from South High School in 1964. Lemons earned a degree in psychology from California State University, Bakersfield in 1970. After graduating, she spent the next two years traveling the United States and Europe.
Following the death of her mother, Lemons moved to Washington, D.C., in 1972. She took a job at a political consulting firm and worked there for a year and a half.
The House Democratic Caucus, led by California Congressman Phil Burton, hired Lemons as a secretary in 1974. After two years, she briefly left the Hill to work for California Governor Jerry Brown, but was invited back by Congressman Burton in 1976. Lemons worked for the Subcommittee on National Parks and Insular Affairs (Interior and Insular Affairs Committee), which Burton chaired, until 1980. Burton then became the chairman of Subcommittee on Labor (Education and Labor Committee), and Lemons worked with him until his death in May 1983.
When Phil’s wife, Sala Burton, decided to run for the open seat she asked Lemons to help her campaign. Sala Burton was elected to Congress in June 1983 and assigned to the House Rules Committee. Burton hired Lemons as her staff liaison for the Rules Committee, a position she held for four years until the Congresswoman’s death in February 1987.
Nancy Pelosi won the special election for the open seat in June 1987. For the next 13 years, Lemons worked as Pelosi’s chief of staff. She oversaw the office’s response to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, organized legislation for the preservation of the Presidio in San Francisco, and aided Representative Pelosi with her ascent to leadership.
Lemons retired from the Hill in 2002. She remains involved in politics as a legislative consultant in the Washington metropolitan area.
"Marriage and the Mundane"
Judy Lemons reflects on the traditional expectations she felt as a young woman.
Interview with Representative Phil Burton
Judy Lemons describes interviewing with Congressman Phil Burton of California in the early 1970s.
Two Months' Vacation
Judy Lemons remembers how she started to work for Representative Sala Burton of California.
Congresswoman Sala Burton
Judy Lemons shares memories of Representative Sala Burton of California.
"That Wasn't My Style"
Judy Lemons remembers the culture in the House during the 1970s.
Reprimanding Tip O'Neill
Judy Lemons recalls Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado confronting Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts about gender in the House.