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Senior Obama adviser has Alaska roots

Pete Rouse is in the innermost circle of the West Wing

Posted: Monday, March 02, 2009

ANCHORAGE - He once helped run state government in Juneau, played shortstop in a local softball league, and he still votes as an Alaska resident.

Pete Souza / White House Photo
Pete Souza / White House Photo

But these days, Pete Rouse works in the White House, two doors from his close friend, President Barack Obama.

For 25 years as the consummate Democratic insider in the U.S. Senate, Rouse played a quiet role as the backdoor connection for Alaska's all-Republican delegation to the other side of the aisle in Congress. He was the longtime chief of staff for Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the one-time Senate majority leader, and starting in 2004 Rouse took on the same job for a promising young freshman senator from Illinois.

Today, as special adviser to Obama, Rouse is in the innermost circle of the West Wing. His office sits between chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and communications director David Axelrod (for fans of "The West Wing" television series, that would be Josh Lyman's office).

"It's only been four years here, this trip from freshman senator," the 62-year-old Rouse said in a telephone interview earlier this month, breaking from his usual low-profile to talk about his Alaska ties. "It has been an interesting ride. I feel pretty invested in it."

His Alaska roots run deeper than those of almost anyone reading these words. His mother, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, grew up in Anchorage starting in World War I, when it was a railroad construction town. His cousin was the longtime municipal attorney for the City of Palmer.

But Rouse himself was born on the East Coast and had never been west of Denver when he flew to Alaska in late 1978 to visit a friend, Alaska's newly elected Republican lieutenant governor, Terry Miller.

Rouse ended up working as Miller's chief of staff for the final four years of Gov. Jay Hammond's administration. It was a great experience, Rouse said, a time when Juneau was filled with young idealists eager to grapple with the state's new oil money, infrastructure need and unformed social policies.

"Juneau at the time was 19,000 people, but it was really a town on the move in terms of young, well-educated people excited by these policy issues," he recalled.

The ambitious young staffer returned to Washington, D.C., in 1983 and worked for Democrats in the Senate ever since. For a while, he imagined returning to Alaska if Miller ever managed to win a race for governor. The dream faded; Miller died of bone cancer in 1989, at age 46. Rouse's last visit to Juneau was to attend his old friend's memorial.

Rouse continued to keep many personal ties in Alaska -- along with his voter registration. In last November's presidential race, records show, the man who would co-lead Obama's transition team voted absentee in Juneau.

Rouse declined to discuss his voter registration.

Legally he appears to be on fairly secure footing. Voters are allowed to maintain registration here if they don't vote elsewhere and intend to return someday. They are also excused if they are working somewhere in civil service of the United States -- a description that pretty much encapsulates Rouse's career. But he does not show up on Alaska Permanent Fund dividend records.)

ALASKA CONNECTION

The story of Alaska's connection to Obama's inner circle begins in 1915 with the arrival of Goro (George) and Mine Mikami in Seward, where construction of the Alaska Railroad was under way. Three years later the immigrants from Japan moved to Anchorage. Their daughter, Mary, entered school speaking only Japanese and went on to become valedictorian at Anchorage High School. In 1934, Mary graduated with honors from the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks (the year before it became the University of Alaska), then moved on to Yale , where she earned a Ph.D. and met her husband, Irving Rouse.

Irving and Mary Rouse raised their son, Pete, in Connecticut. He spent a few years working on Capitol Hill for Sen. James Abourezk, D-S.D., answering constituent mail alongside Daschle, another young aide. But when Daschle decided to run for Congress in 1978, Rouse took time off to get a master's degree in public administration at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. There he met Miller, who had recently served as Alaska's youngest-ever Senate president. Miller came home to run for lieutenant governor with Hammond for the governor's second term.

Miller persuaded Rouse to return to his mother's home state to work in Alaska politics. Part of the appeal was that Miller would be heir to Hammond's moderate Republican mantle and had a good shot at becoming governor in four years.

"He was a very intelligent guy and a progressive Republican," Rouse said of Miller, the only Republican he ever worked for. "On balance I felt he had the right vision for Alaska and the right philosophical approach."

Rouse's reach extended well beyond the lieutenant governor's office. He was involved in all the governor's major meetings on budgets and appointments, said Jerry Reinwand, who was Hammond's chief of staff at the time.

As a workaholic senior staffer in the U.S. Senate, Rouse liked to stay quietly in the background. Media sightings of Rouse have been rare. The few stories of past years invariably note two things: his affection for cats (he has Maine coon cats at home, where he lives alone) and his nickname of "The 101st Senator," owing to his reputation for results-oriented strategy and working across party lines.

"One of the things you will find about Pete, he keeps one of the lowest profiles going," said McKie Campbell, a former state Fish and Game Commissioner now working for the Senate Energy Committee in Washington, who stayed friends from the Juneau days. "He's the quiet guy who everybody listens to when he talks."



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