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Alabama’s Ann Berry set to be sworn in as first Black secretary of the Senate

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After four decades in Washington, D.C., Birmingham native Ann Berry will be sworn in March 1 as the first Black secretary of the U.S. Senate. (contributed)
By Anthony Cook
Alabama Newscenter

On March 1, Sonceria Ann Berry will be sworn in as the secretary of the U.S. Senate, making her the first Black person and the eighth woman to serve in the position.

The significance of being sworn in one day after the conclusion of Black History Month and on the first day of Women’s History Month is not lost on Berry, a Birmingham native.

“I look forward to entering the Senate chamber for the opening of that day’s session,” she said. “I think this will be the day of recognition when I truly feel the impact of what it means to be appointed ‘the first’ African American woman to hold the position of secretary of the Senate. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance as an officer of the United States Senate will be monumental for this kid who grew up under the love and supervision of Maxie and Mattie Bishop in Birmingham, Alabama.”

Berry currently serves as deputy chief of staff for Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Over four decades in Washington, D.C., she worked with Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware and former Sens. John Edwards, Pat Moynihan and Howell Heflin. In 2017, she led former Sen. Doug Jones’ transition team after he won a special election to replace former Sen. Jeff Sessions, who accepted then-President Trump’s appointment as U.S. attorney general.

Born July 24, 1955, Berry is the oldest of four children. She graduated from the former Phillips High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of North Alabama. She is married to Reginald Berry and they have a daughter, Elizabeth Berry.

In the middle of wrapping up duties as Leahy’s deputy chief of staff and transitioning physically and mentally to the secretary of the Senate position, Berry took time to respond to questions from Alabama NewsCenter about her journey to this historic appointment.

Alabama NewsCenter: Talk about your path to Washington. Walk us through your professional journey, starting with graduating from UNA.

Ann Berry: I graduated from the University of North Alabama in May 1978. Upon graduation, I was offered and accepted a position with South Central Bell in the engineering department as a secretary. It was always my intention to move to Atlanta, so I figured if I could work in one of South Central Bell’s satellite offices for a while, I could eventually move to the headquarters office in Atlanta. After almost a year with South Central Bell, I was contacted by Sen. Howell Heflin’s office and asked to stop by to speak with them about possible employment opportunities. I really didn’t know much about politics or Sen. Heflin at the time, except that Sen. Heflin was replacing Sen. John Sparkman, who, for as long as I could remember, was one of our Alabama senators. At the time, I didn’t know how the Heflin team had learned of me, but I found out later that Sen. Heflin had stated during his campaign that he wanted his staff to ‘represent what his state looked like.’ I was eventually offered a position, and I must admit I wasn’t sure if acceptance and relocation was the right thing to do. After all, I had never been to Washington, D.C., and I didn’t know or have any family or friends who lived there. With the encouragement of Dr. Robert Guillot, president of UNA, and other UNA officials I worked with as a student aide, I walked out on faith. Dr. Guillot stated that ‘it was an opportunity of a lifetime,’ and I must admit, he was absolutely right.

ANC: Other than presidential administrations, what are some of the most significant changes you’ve seen in your 40 years in the Capitol?

AB: There have been so many changes since I first arrived on Capitol Hill. The two most notable changes are that nearly one-quarter of the senators currently serving are female and the United States Senate has diversity in its membership and staff. Forty years ago, there were not very many young people employed and certainly not very many people of color. In fact, looking back, I was probably the youngest staffer in Sen. Heflin’s office at the time. The Russell and Dirksen buildings were the only two Senate office buildings. The Hart Building, which houses 50 member offices, was under construction, and Sen. Heflin was one of the first members to move into one of the suites back in 1982. Prior to 9/11, Capitol Hill was open to anyone who wanted to visit, but now there are barricades everywhere and metal detectors at every entrance, reflective of existing threats to the homeland. Technology represents another impactful change from fax machines, memory typewriters, desktop computers, scanning machines, color printers, copiers, just to name a few pieces of equipment that were all introduced during my time here in the Senate. Additionally, the members of the Senate are much younger now. Senators parenting young children was unheard of back in the day. For most members, election to the United States Senate was a second career. For instance, Sen. Heflin was a former judge, Sen. Moynihan was a former ambassador and Sen. Leahy was the former state district attorney for Vermont. So, you can see that most members were statesmen and their goal was to serve our country and the constituents from their states.

ANC: You’ve served with some of the more recognizable senators in Congress – Howell Heflin, Patrick Moynihan, John Edwards, Tom Carper, Patrick Leahy, Doug Jones – what would you say you take from them in your approach to the job?

AB: I have had the honor of working for some of the best members ever to work in the U.S. Senate. They were all so different and yet so much alike. The one thing they all had in common was their love for this country and love for the states they represented. I learned negotiation and leadership skills from these senators collectively and Sen. Leahy in particular. Sen. Leahy’s office has a reputation in the Senate for having an excellent culture where employees model the leadership example. I have learned how important it is to acknowledge and respect the men and women who work in the Senate and not just the staff who work in the personal offices and on committees, but also the administrative and support offices and staff who assist in the everyday operations that keep the Senate moving forward. I always make it a point to acknowledge the support staff, if not by name, then with a greeting or smile to say hello, which goes further than most people realize.

ANC: Describe your childhood home life and life lessons you learned at an early age that guide you today.

AB: Looking back, we were the working-class poor, but my socioeconomic status really did not matter because there was never any doubt that I was loved. I lived in a house with both my parents and three brothers and was fortunate to live near my extended family, which included my grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. We all lived in the same neighborhood. My parents were good providers and did everything they could to help me and my brothers succeed. Both high school graduates, they stressed the importance of education. As the oldest child, my father always told me that I had to be the ‘best’ and that I had to be an example for my brothers, for ‘if I did well, then they would, too.’ I took him literally and I tried to always do my best, to be kind and to treat others the way I would want to be treated. I continue to lead by example and with integrity as encouraged by my father, a discipline that has served me well both professionally and personally and will influence my position as secretary of the Senate.

ANC: Seems like it would take a special person to work with/for so many different personalities and be so highly respected by them all. What’s the secret to your success?

AB: I would not say there is a secret to my success, but I am a straight shooter and it’s very important to be honest not just to the member, but to the staff as well. I was given the privilege of working with some of the best members ever, and I never wanted to disappoint the member or his staff.

ANC: What do you think about future Black History Months listing your appointment as one of our national firsts that should be celebrated?

AB: I must admit that I really have not given much thought to being one of the first, though family, friends and colleagues are extremely excited about the appointment for this specific reason. I will say that I am honored and humbled for this opportunity, but right now I am focused on making sure that Sen. Leahy and his office is taken care of before I move on to my next adventure. As the incoming secretary of the Senate, my goal is to continue my best work and to make the institution the best that it can be and that the nation needs it to be.

ANC: Who’s your hero or someone you greatly admire and why?

AB: My heroes are my parents. My dad, who passed away a few years ago, and my mom, Mattie Bishop. Unfortunately, my father will not witness my promotion or recognition as a figure in Black history. However, my mother will proudly receive the honor on behalf of both parents. We were raised in love, and our parents worked really hard to make sure that we had the foundation and tools to succeed. My success is equally their success. Most recently, I would add my daughter, Elizabeth Berry, to my list of those who I admire for reasons of fortitude and being the absolute best version of herself now, but with much growth and personal development ahead of her.

ANC: Birmingham was a focal point during the civil rights movement of the ’60s. Compare what you saw back then to today’s struggle for social justice and racial equality.

AB: I was a young girl in the ’60s and was sheltered from the atrocities of the world by my parents. Though I would hear conversations and sometimes listen to the radio with my grandfather, I did not have a full understanding of racial injustice. In hindsight, the reality had to be horrific, but my parents never let on just how bad things were. Yes, social justice and racial equality are much better than they were back then, and yet we still have a long way to go. It’s unfortunate that people generally have to be forced to do the right thing through federal government intervention. As I said earlier, it still comes down to treating others the way you would like to be treated.

ANC: Where were you on Jan. 6 of this year? Describe what it was like for you personally. What lessons should we learn from that day as a nation?

AB: I was actually working from home on Jan. 6th. We decided to close the office that day because we really didn’t know what to expect based on the media reports. I have always felt that working on Capitol Hill was very safe. Watching the U.S. Capitol Police being challenged by domestic terrorists, the danger faced by the vice president and members of Congress and congressional staff, and the destruction of the United States Capitol building as a federal institution was heartbreaking. Even after seeing the destruction upfront and close, it is still hard to believe that anyone would be so cruel. Unfortunately, there are some distasteful things that we need to face as a country, and hatred is real and needs to be confronted.

ANC: President Biden has appointed the most diverse cabinet in history. We have the first Black, first South Asian, first woman as vice president. How important is representation at the highest level of government?

AB: Representation is important at all levels of government and outside of government as well. If we can see diversity regardless of where we are seated, then the country is advanced. I think that we will succeed as a society when we can lose the label of ‘firsts’ with respect to black and brown-skinned people and these individuals represent the norm through opportunity. Representation allows our young and the seasoned a lens to see that we basically want the same things in life – to be treated fairly with dignity and respect no matter who you are or where you live, and that there is a chance for each of us to be whatever we want to be if we put in the work and put forth the effort. Some doors will undoubtedly close, but others will more than likely open when we prepare ourselves.

ANC: If you could talk to high schoolers or college students who are just getting started down life’s path, what advice would you give them?

AB: I would say to young people to take advantage of school and never take for granted the importance of education. There are a few things that I have repeated to all the young people who have crossed my path over the years, and they are:

  1. Do your best today, for tomorrow is not promised.
  2. Be prepared, because you may have only one chance to prove yourself.
  3. Nothing in the world is free, and if it is free, it’s probably not worth having.
  4. Life is about choices – good ones and bad ones. Whatever choice you make, you will have to live with it. And lastly,
  5. This, too, shall pass!

During Black History Month, Alabama NewsCenter is celebrating the culture and contributions of those who have shaped our state and those working to elevate Alabama today. Visit AlabamaNewsCenter.com throughout the month for stories of Alabamians past and present.