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Two victors in elections credit days with Kerry

Both honed skills on senator’s staff

By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / November 5, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Does Senator John F. Kerry have a keen eye for fresh political talent?

It would seem so based on Tuesday’s elections, when two former high-level Kerry staffers scored significant victories - Setti Warren as Newton’s mayor and Ayanna Pressley as an at-large Boston city councilor.

Both became the first African-Americans elected to their respective positions, and both credited Kerry yesterday for nurturing their ambitions.

Warren, 39, a former staffer in the Clinton White House who worked on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said there is no doubt that his time as Kerry’s coordinator for federal aid for towns and cities prepared him for the duties he’s about to assume: working with local government officials, handling requests from small businesses, and cutting through bureaucratic red tape.

“These are skills a CEO needs to be successful in the mayor’s office,’’ he said, adding that mayor “is a new title, but the work is not new to me.’’

Pressley, 35, worked for Kerry during his tough 1996 reelection campaign, then became Capitol Hill scheduler - a demanding job in an office where time is a precious commodity.

“He saw something and took a chance on me,’’ said Pressley, raised in poverty by a single mother while her father did time in prison. Though she had no experience - and no college diploma - Pressley held the job for six years.

Far from being a secretary, she said, being a scheduler for a high-profile senator “requires a close relationship and rapport with the member, to anticipate their needs, their rhythm, their personality. It requires savvy, and an incredible attention to detail.’’

Kerry said yesterday that he was thrilled Warren and Pressley were elected, saying their new constituents have chosen two dedicated public servants.

“That’s what brought them into politics - making a difference for people,’’ he said.

“They’re talented, they’re capable. Ayanna is just a great story of somebody who has worked her way up and battled against adversity. She’s very committed to the values that drive her to public life. Setti is the same way - he’s already been serving in so many different ways.’’

Kerry’s former colleague, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, had a reputation for luring the best and brightest to his staff and grooming them. But while many went on to important jobs, not many ran for local office, said Dennis Hale, a Boston College political science professor.

“What’s unusual is for talented folks to go back home and run for mayor,’’ like Warren did, or for city council, in the case of Pressley, Hale said. “It used to be that if you left home for Washington, you didn’t come back.’’

Jeff Barry, a political scientist at Tufts University, said Kerry, like Kennedy, has his pick of gifted, ambitious people who want to work for him. “But I think Senator Kennedy received a lot more credit for his talented office staff than John Kerry ever did.’’

Both Warren and Pressley said Kerry was involved in their campaigns and offered encouragement, despite his own busy Senate schedule.

Appearing with Pressley at Concord Baptist Church a few days ago, Kerry was interrupted by a phone call: The State Department was on the line and needed to talk to him about Afghanistan.

Kerry, who joked that Pressley “graciously’’ allowed him to leave early, downplays his role in grooming Warren and Pressley for success.

“Through the years, I’ve been blessed to have a lot of very talented people who work for me,’’ he said. “I think that it’s really good to see them go out like this and show what they’re made of.’’

Joseph Williams can be reached at jowilliams@globe.com.