In his role as Senior Policy Advisor to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Kenneth Russell DeGraff ’03 juggles the needs, wants, and expectations of constituents and members of Congress who range from those who support Pelosi’s agenda wholeheartedly to those who would do everything in their power to crush it.
He learned that balancing act at Butler. Sometimes painfully.
“College wasn’t exactly fun,” said DeGraff, who, as far as he knows, was the only openly gay student at Butler when he showed up on campus in 1999. “I remember having to defend myself too many times and in too many spaces. But I also saw firsthand that when you share perspectives, you learn and grow. I learned a lot from people I don’t always agree with—where our values intersected, and where we could find some common ground.”
He remembers searching for common ground on his second day at Butler, when he found that the Butler Alliance—a student organization for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies—had no presence at orientation. He says now-Emeriti Psychology Professor Burrton Woodruff told him that “it didn’t exist anymore, that there hadn’t been an openly gay student at Butler in a few years.” Woodruff also put the word out to faculty colleagues: “Let’s make sure he’s not alone.”
Before long, he wasn’t. But DeGraff did find himself as a spokesperson for gay students on campus. During his sophomore year, DeGraff represented the Butler Alliance in a Philosophy Club event called Homosexuality and Morality: Is Gay OK?
“I was in front of the Reilly Room, defending my existence while people cut through, dodging the overflow crowd on the floor in the back aisle,” he said.
Emeriti Political Science Professor Margaret Brabant remembers DeGraff initially as having “unrealized potential.” DeGraff said Brabant may have had a point.
“I was very active in a lot of things that were both on campus and off campus but were all about trying to make the world a better place,” he said. “It was obvious that I didn’t focus on every class as much as I could have. But I felt that there was so much around me that I wanted to learn from and absorb and put the work in to make it better.”
Butler gave him that opportunity. His activities included work in the Speakers Lab as a tutor and developer of the first database to schedule student appointments. He ran the guest speaker series for the SGA Program Board, co-founded a new Butler Alliance and Safe Space Program, worked with other student groups, and wrote opinion pieces for the Butler Collegian.
Ultimately, he also proved himself to Brabant many times over through his work in Butler’s Center for Citizenship and Community, where he dealt adeptly with public policy issues such as property owners and tenants’ relations.
Within a couple of weeks in 2002, DeGraff experienced a microcosm of his Butler years. He was named Most Outstanding Male Student, criticized by a Collegian opinion columnist for his acceptance speech in which he discussed how LGBT students are treated on campus, and awarded a Truman Scholarship, which is given to students who demonstrate outstanding leadership potential and are committed to a career in government.
By the time he graduated, DeGraff was ready for a much bigger stage.
DeGraff began his career after graduation as a Policy Analyst for what’s now known as Consumer Reports Advocacy, followed by five years as Legislative Assistant and then Legislative Director for Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Doyle.
In 2011, then-representative-now-Massachusetts-Sen. Ed Markey recommended DeGraff to Nancy Pelosi as someone who could help her with issues such as net neutrality—the principle that Internet service providers shouldn’t interfere with the content, apps, or services people want to use.
Pelosi announced DeGraff’s hiring this way: “Kenneth has been a valuable asset to Congressman Doyle in his service on the Energy and Commerce Committee—fighting to promote universal broadband access and preserve the open Internet, bolster America’s competitiveness, and ensure our energy security. He now brings his impressive experience to my office and will continue working with the technology industry to promote American innovation and create jobs.”
DeGraff said he has found Pelosi to be “brilliant, gracious, and works harder than all of us on her staff put together.”
In getting to this level, DeGraff has a breathtaking view of how government works. He’s been within feet of presidents (Obama and Trump), and he’s seen the best and worst of politics.
He said his most significant achievement in government so far was working with both sides of the political aisle and both chambers of Congress on what the Washington Post called “a mammoth package of emergency economic relief, government funding and tax cuts, one of the largest pieces of legislation ever approved by Congress” and signed into law by President Trump on December 27, 2020, that created the first broadband affordability program, phased out potent planet-warming chemicals, and rebuilt energy research and development programs behind a new commitment to eliminating pollution across the economy, and much more.
That’s the kind of accomplishment he’s been working toward since his years at Butler—one that makes a difference.
“Kenneth always understood that politics is the art of the possible—and he continues to do the possible,” Brabant said. “The Butler community is proud of his work, and I am deeply impressed by what he continues to achieve.”