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Trail Blazers

Jen O'Malley Dillon (A'98)


Trail Blazers

Jen O'Malley Dillon fell into politics one frigid weekend in New Hampshire. It was 1996, and O'Malley Dillon was a Tufts sophomore volunteering with Tufts Democrats for President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. The political science major, who had never been involved with a political campaign before, took a bus north with students from other colleges, attended a rally and held signs on a street corner in subzero weather. She spent that night sleeping on the floor of an unheated YMCA gym in Goffstown, New Hampshire.

It may not sound like an appealing way to spend a weekend, but it was in those frozen climes where O'Malley Dillon found her calling. Now, as battleground states director for Sen. Barack Obama's (D-Ill.) presidential campaign, the 1998 graduate is embracing the most important role of her political career.

O'Malley Dillon traces her enthusiasm for politics back to her upbringing in Franklin, Mass. Her parents were teachers, and politics was always a topic of discussion; she remembers seeing Michael Dukakis on TV at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 when she was in junior high. But it was her Tufts experience that set the former Jumbo, who played first base for the softball team, on the path to the political major leagues.

2008 Presidential Campaigns

Right after graduation, a Tufts connection got O'Malley Dillon involved with then-Mass. Attorney General Scott Harshbarger's gubernatorial campaign. She began as a volunteer, but was soon hired to answer phones for $200 per week. Eventually, she became the volunteer coordinator.

"I haven't really stopped campaigning since," she says. "Being able to do that really charted the course of what I've done in my adult life professionally."

A National Profile

After the Harshbarger campaign, which was ultimately not successful, she worked for Al Gore's presidential campaign as a volunteer coordinator for two years. In 2002, she served as field director for South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson's campaign, which he won by a slim margin of 524 votes. O'Malley Dillon worked for John Edwards' presidential campaign in Iowa in 2003, was deputy campaign manager for Sen. Tom Daschle's re-election bid in 2004 and prior to her role with the Obama campaign was state director for Edwards' presidential campaign in Iowa.

"If you work hard and you get your job done, you can go very far. You really have a lot of power to make people's lives better. I enjoy being able to do that."

— Jennifer O'Malley Dillon

"If you work hard and you get your job done, you can go very far," says O'Malley-Dillon. "You really have a lot of power to make people's lives better. I enjoy being able to do that."

In her role as battleground states director for the Obama campaign, O'Malley Dillon oversees operations in 22 states the campaign views as critical to victory, balancing the demands of the state campaigns with those of the national campaign. With a mix of polling data and political instinct guiding the actions of O'Malley Dillon and her staff, every day is full of critical decisions and carefully executed strategies, coupled with whatever the daily crisis or unexpected event is—and there's always something. "That's one of the things I like about this job: every single day is different," she says.

2008 Presidential Campaigns

O'Malley Dillon values working at a grassroots level and being able to connect with voters in communities all across the country. One of the most rewarding parts of her job, she says, is seeing young people getting excited and involved in the political process. As someone who looks at her entry into politics as a "fluke," she is pleased to see them being proactive and getting engaged.

"It's been great to see, in particular this time around, so many young people getting involved as volunteers and getting a feel for what it's like to go out there and volunteer, and realizing that by having one or two conversations with people, you could really make the difference eventually and be able to change their lives."

If At First You Don't Succeed . . .

As someone who was right there both during Gore's unsuccessful Florida recount effort ("a painful, painful process," she recalls) and Johnson's 524-vote victory in South Dakota, she knows from experience that every vote counts.

"There's so much of this that is peer to peer," says O'Malley Dillon. "It's important for other young people that maybe aren't very interested in politics to hear from their friends that this candidate is great or this issue is important. It helps more people get involved and really take a second look."

Losing campaigns has taught O'Malley Dillon that politics can be a "heartbreaking" business. But as tough as losing is, she says those experiences are worth going through.

"You can't allow one loss to get in the way of something that really matters that much."

— Jennifer O'Malley Dillon

"You put your heart and soul into it, and it's tough because it's what you believe in. It's not a job you leave at the end of the day," the Tufts graduate says. "When Al Gore lost, it was probably one of the hardest things for me, in my young career, to go through. And it's definitely heart wrenching, but it also gives you resolve to know you need to keep fighting. You can't allow one loss to get in the way of something that really matters that much."

Only turning 32 this month, O'Malley Dillon has seen a lot of politics. It's hard work, with 18-hour days and 7-day weeks as the norm. That's why, win or lose, she is simply looking forward to heading back home to Iowa after the election, where her husband Patrick Dillon, chief of staff to Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (they met during Edwards' campaign in 2003), and her cat await.

Longer term, O'Malley Dillon envisions staying involved in politics, but perhaps shifting out of campaign mode. Still, despite the long hours and occasional heartbreak, she treasures every moment she's spent on the trail.

"The thing I always say about campaigns is that they are so incredibly hard when you're going through it," she says. "But at the end of the day, win or lose, all you remember is the good times and the good experiences you have. And win or lose, there's always another campaign."

Joe Coletti | Jennifer O'Malley Dillon

Profiles written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Coletti photos by Jonathan Quilter for University Photography. O'Malley Dillon photos by Jason Reblando for University Photography.

This story originally ran on Oct. 13, 2008.