WASHINGTON — Keeping up with Nancy Pelosi for 16 years hasn’t been easy, Drew Hammill says.
“It’s really something to behold. This is someone who prefers the stairs, and you oftentimes see the (security) detail struggling to keep up,” he said in a November interview.
“I think if I had some Italian genes, I might stand a better chance,” he laughed, a nod to the California Democrat’s heritage.
Hammill, 44, began working for Pelosi in 2006, the year before she became the first woman speaker in history.
Look for the speaker, and more likely than not, you’ll also catch a glimpse of Hammill by her side, a stack of papers in one hand and his cellphone in the other. As her deputy chief of staff since 2015, he’s been her fiercest flack and runs her 17-person communications operation.
Those who hawkishly watch congressional staff shifts may be wondering: What’s the next step for Hammill now that Pelosi’s stepping down as Democratic leader?
“Oh, I have no idea. … I’m focused on getting sleep first, and then I’ll think about that,” he said.
The Illinois native did confirm he has no plans to leave Washington, where he lives in the neighborhood of Capitol Hill with his husband. And if he’s sticking around the seat of government, it’ll be on the House side. “The Senate is just really slow,” he said.
One thing is certain: He won’t stay with Pelosi. Her change in budget from speaker to rank-and-file member, representing San Francisco, will mean a dramatic scaling down of her staff.
“She can’t afford to take all of us with her. … I would follow her anywhere if she had the money to pay for me. But she does not,” Hammill said.
“Diversity is our strength, unity is our power,” Pelosi often said about House Democrats as she worked across the ideological span of her caucus, earning bare-knuckle wins like a bipartisan infrastructure law and a massive social spending and climate package in the 117th Congress
While Republicans secured a precarious House majority next year, Hammill doesn’t see Kevin McCarthy herding his colleagues with the same sort of “unifying thrust.” The Californian was nominated as speaker by his conference, 188-31, but needs a majority of 218 votes when the real test comes in January.
Looking back on his boss’s two decades as the top Democrat in the House, including four terms as speaker, Hammill pointed to the 2010 health care law as a high point. But “the one that was a little bit closer to me was the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” he said.
“The speaker and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid found a path very late in the year, and it was something that I worked on personally and something that obviously meant a lot to me,” Hammill added.
Democrats hadn’t gone on the offensive for LGBTQ rights before Pelosi’s speakership, he said, but that changed in 2009 when they passed an anti-hate crime bill named after Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr.
When he cleans out his desk, Hammill will take a souvenir with him from the “don’t ask don’t tell” repeal in 2010.
“The little white piece of paper that they give you with the vote on it, I got to keep that, in recognition of my efforts, as a gift from the speaker,” he said.
Cleaning out his desk could take a while. “It’s quite a mess,” he said. In the process of sorting through press releases and speech drafts, he’s thinking back on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
Hammill said he had nightmares in the days that followed the attack.
“We were told over and over again that there’s no way, there’s no way that the Capitol could be breached. And that’s what we all believed,” he said.
He was on the House floor as supporters of Donald Trump stormed the building and assaulted Capitol Police. Hours later, he was one of the first congressional staffers to return to the chamber to assess the damage.
But he wasn’t among the Pelosi staffers who barricaded themselves in a conference room as rioters ransacked the speaker’s office.
“What those folks went through was really something on a different level,” Hammill said.
Through four presidencies, endless budget battles, a pandemic and an insurrection, Hammill has been a constant at Pelosi’s side. He knows her verbal tics, her least favorite words and her fondness for Bible verses — though he sometimes leaves that last part to speechwriters with a better command of the Scriptures.
“I was raised Southern Baptist and I’m still recovering,” he said.
Hammill has crafted Pelosi’s messaging in both the minority and the majority. And he has staunchly defended her from questions about when she might step aside to let other Democrats take the lead.
Now a new era has come, with Pelosi closing out her 17th term at the age of 82. She will remain in the House as a member from California, and Hammill will no longer be her always available, on-the-record voice.
“When I started, it was still not a 24/7 environment … where the news cycle is just constantly changing,” he said. “If she’s traveling abroad, the phone could be ringing 24 hours a day.”
He recently switched from Diet Coke to double espressos, he shared.
Staffers often like to say they “grew up” in a member’s office. But that’s not exactly Hammill’s feeling after the day-to-day press grind.
“I feel that I grew old in this office,” Hammill said with a laugh. But also proud, he added.