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Claire M.
Democrat MO

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  • Tribute to Nichole Distefano

    by Senator Claire McCaskill

    Posted on 2013-12-20

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    McCASKILL. Madam President, as we come to the end of 2013, I wish to pay tribute to a friend and a stellar long-term staff member of mine, Nichole Distefano. Nichole left my office earlier this year to pursue an exceptional opportunity with the Environmental Protection Agency. She spent more than 6 years as an indispensable member of my Washington, DC, staff and was an exceptional member of staffs of mine going back to 2004.

    Nichole is affectionately known as ``H'' in our office, initially because of the ``h'' in her first name and later for reasons best not shared on the Senate floor but related to her tenacity and direct nature. Nichole was the absolute rock and foundation of our legislative staff during her tenure.

    She was, in fact, the first legislative aide that I hired. It did not matter--although was a shock to some--that she had no previous experience in DC. I knew she would dive right into her responsibilities with attention to detail and skill. In fact, within 2 years on the staff, she assumed responsibility for my government reform portfolio, which encompassed the issues that I focused on most intently during my first 6 years in the Senate. During that time we promoted her four times and continually increased her responsibility. In each case, she performed beyond even my highest expectations. There was no challenge and no issue Nichole could not tackle.

    Nichole's policy accomplishments are too many to number. She was our lead staffer on earmark reform work; whistleblower legislation for both Federal employees and contractors; our complex regulatory reform efforts; everything and anything that had to do with empowering our inspectors general. She led all the office work on screening policies at the airports along with handling innumerable challenging situations with the GSA in regards to Missouri and was the lead staffer in writing bills to curb some of the excesses that we discovered in that Agency. She also patiently waded through all of the difficult policy and politics of energy issues, including the challenging and politically sensitive debate on cap and trade. There was no detail too small for Nichole to master and no nuance she could not grasp. One of her earliest policy responsibilities had to do with an energy issue much smaller than cap and trade, however. She prepared legislation dealing with the measurement of gasoline as it relates to temperature--hot gas was not the most exciting issue. It involved no bright lights and no headlines, just hard, complicated, solid, public policy work--the exact kind of thing Nichole thrived at. Those issues that take more than a cut-and-paste memo were Nichole's specialty.

    I have known Nichole since she was 8 years old, as the granddaughter of a strong public servant, Carole Roper Park Vaughn, who served with me in the Missouri State Legislature. As Nichole ran around Carole's Jefferson City office, Carole helped instill in her that leadership spark. In 2004, when I ran for Governor, I hired Nichole for the first time to help run our Kansas City volunteer crew. By the end, most people on staff thought she was the one really running our KC office-- and for all intent and purposes, she was.

    By our 2006 Senate race, she became my rural outreach director, helping us [[Page S9097]] find some of the gems of our campaign, like Sweet Corn Charlie. On both campaigns she was always willing to do whatever was needed at any level from literally boosting me up onto an RV so we could grab a picture of our ``McCaskill for Senate''-wrapped RV in front of my family's old flour mill in Houston, MO, to walking into a field office unannounced one day and saying she was there to go door-to-door, despite her senior role on the campaign.

    She is a take-charge kind of woman but taking charge by immersing herself in a subject. That became her trademark. We all grew to expect her remarkable technical competence on very complicated issues and her penchant for digging deeper to find the real answer. Of course, at times, she let her desire to dig deep bleed into her personal life, too. Just ask her new husband Ryan what her first two responses to his marriage proposal were: ``Are you serious?'' Because of this knack for asking the right questions and learning the detailed answers, I always listened to what she had to say--I did not always agree, of course, but listened nonetheless. As one of her male colleagues said, ``She looks tiny and sweet, but everyone is a little terrified of her because she's tougher and smarter than most everyone out there.'' And have no doubt, when Nichole believes something, she will let you know, and she will fight for it. I cherish this attribute because in this kind of job you need people who aren't just smart, aren't just aggressive, but who are real and honest.

    Now no one stays terrified of Nichole for too long because they figure out how genuine she is, and funny too. The gifted members of our staffs are both intense and blessed with great humor.

    Our legislative correspondents have been lucky to have her as a mentor, as well--someone who expects a high level of performance, gives praise when it is due, and encourages professional development. It is no accident that one of the first LC's to work for her grew into one of my staff's most important legislative assistants today.

    It is always bittersweet for me when these kinds of junctures happen--these times when you want your staff to blast forward and make you proud as much as you want them to stay--because they have been so essential to your work.

    With Nichole now working as a senior advisor within the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Relations at the EPA, she is providing the kind of public service that embraces intellect, curiosity, and precision. It is why they brought her on, of course. They quickly saw what we already knew. They are benefiting greatly from her deep vein of common sense and her refusal to stop working until she has asked every question and gotten every answer.

    I am proud to say thank you to Nichole Distefano as 2013 comes to an end, to express my deep gratitude for all she has done for me, for Missouri, and for our great Nation over so many years. I am proud to see her continue to grow and excel. I know she is doing exceptional things in her new position. She is my friend. She is a rock. And I miss her.


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