BY Kerry Eleveld
January 10 2011 5:00 AM ET
No one has ever questioned Hillary Clinton’s wit, her policy credentials, or her ability to outmaneuver the most agile of Beltway operators in order to achieve her goals. But rarely does one read about her personal touch, the fierce loyalty she inspires in the people who work for her—emanating from her inner circle of advisers all the way to the outer reaches of the State Department walls.
“It’s just evident—this secretary cares about people,” says undersecretary Kennedy. “She wants to make sure that we hire the best people, give them the best training, do what we can to retain them, do what we can to deploy them in ways that advance the national interests.”
Mira Patel had only worked in the office of then-senator Clinton for about six months when Obama appointed Clinton as secretary of State. “I was still feeling my way around in what I thought was the greatest job I had ever gotten,” says Patel, who was 25 at the time and serving as Clinton’s legislative correspondent for foreign affairs and finance. She had started as an intern, tasked with meeting Clinton at her car each morning when she arrived at the Senate to help carry her briefing book–laden bags upstairs. “She knew my name after the first week of picking up her bags—knew I had gone to Wellesley [College], where she had gone,” Patel says.
As the senator prepared to transition into her new role, Clinton called Patel into her office. “She had her glasses on, and a cup of tea, and a whole stack of policy papers,” Patel says. “She said, ‘Mira, sit down, I want to talk to you. As you know, I’m going to the State Department, and I would like you to come with me.’ ”
At that moment, the senator’s future chief of staff walked into the room. “Before I could react, Hillary said, ‘Oh, and I’d like you to meet my friend Cheryl—why don’t you tell her a little about yourself?’ ” says Patel, who eagerly informed Mills of her background and areas of interest. “I was thrilled. I just remember saying it would be an honor to do anything for the senator. If she had said, ‘I’d like you to wash the windows in my car,’ I would have happily done it.”
Patel ended up on the secretary’s policy planning staff with women’s and refugees’ issues in her portfolio. “As I was here, I realized there was an acute need to cover LGBT issues,” she says with the classic enthusiasm of a young Washington overachiever.
With Clinton’s blessing and Mills’s open-door policy, junior staffers such as Patel—as well as GLIFAA members on up to deputy assistant secretary Dan Baer, the highest-ranking openly gay official domestically based at the department—have been able to effect change in the U.S.’s approach to LGBT issues, one that’s visible from Serbia to New Zealand to Uganda. “Having a very visible commitment from the top makes everything that I do on this issue easier,” Baer says.
As part of the policy planning staff, Patel is stationed in the office that vets every memo bound for Clinton’s desk—meaning she can flag any gay-related matter and weigh in if necessary. When LGBT issues were added to Patel’s portfolio in the fall of 2009, she authored her own memo on gay human rights strategy that helped facilitate a dialogue on the subject between top State Department officials—people like Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of the policy planning staff, and Mills, who emerged as a central figure in almost every conversation I had.
“Cheryl has really been the point person who has helped to lead these efforts along with the senior leadership at State,” Clinton says. If the e-mails start flying at 5:30 a.m. about some antigay atrocity overseas, Mills is on the list, along with the corresponding bureau, Baer says. If Patel and GLIFAA’s Tollefson have a concern, they’re never more than an e-mail away from getting on the chief of staff’s calendar.
Sitting with Mills in the State Department, I can’t help but compare her to another recent chief of staff in the Obama administration: Rahm Emanuel. Both served in the Clinton administration, and while Emanuel seems to have emerged gun-shy on LGBT issues, Mills frankly is just the opposite. Although she avoids saying much of anything on the record that is overtly personal, she does offer me a window into why the battle for LGBT equality stirs her.
“My life has been created based on the other people who have fought for the privileges that I have—the privileges that I have to be a lawyer, to have gone to the institutions that I’ve gone to, even just to get educated as an African-American,” Mills explains. “So when I look at some of the limitations that others experience, I’m conscious of the fact that other people chose, for me, to put their lives and their privileges on the line, and I have an obligation to step up as well.”
And as Mills sees it, the State Department under Secretary Clinton has been perfectly positioned to change and even mainstream the global dialogue on LGBT rights: “One of the opportunities of being Secretary Clinton, and certainly one of the opportunities of being at the State Department, is you are representing America’s highest self, if you will, in terms of how it engages the world. At least, that’s what we seek to do.”
But as close as she and Clinton are, Mills says she had no idea the secretary was going to couple human rights and gay rights during her speech at last summer’s State Department pride celebration—a speech that might well go down in history as a turning point for LGBT rights around the globe. “This struck me as part of the continuum and consistency of where [Clinton] starts from and how she looks at the world. So I was glad that she did say it,” Mills says. “But it’s also something that she lives every day.”