“It was a time to sit and think,” she said, “about what I believe, why I believe it and what that means for my vocation. Looking back on it, I appreciate very much the time to go through those things. And I think it led me to where I am today.”
Where Ottenhoff is today is deputy communications director for Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, the first Democrat in that post in some three decades. In her work Ottenhoff does a myriad of tasks, including working as press secretary for Blagojevich. She also works with policy advisers to craft the administration’s message strategy, writes press releases and statements and works with the press secretaries in the state agencies under the governor’s authority. With some understatement Ottenhoff noted that “it’s not a 9 to 5 job.”
Indeed, a typical day for the Greeley, Colo., native usually begins at 8 a.m. with a conference call with communications staff about the governor’s schedule for the day and possible issues he needs to be ready to address. It generally ends about 8 p.m. with the last of what likely has been dozens of phone conversations with local, state and national reporters. In between are numerous other duties, including traveling often to cities where the governor is speaking and meeting with the media.
And the work doesn’t end on Friday afternoon. As press secretary, Ottenhoff needs to be at the media’s beck and call. That includes Saturdays and Sundays. Still, the former Calvin political science major says the thought of a job in the private sector doesn’t have a lot of pull for her at this time in her career.
“I’m afraid I’d be bored,” she said, with a laugh.
Ottenhoff’s career in politics budded in high school with stints on student government and then flowered at Calvin, where she not only majored in political science (while minoring in journalism), but also had a trio of internship experiences.
The first came as a junior working in Lansing for Jessie Dalman, then a Republican state representative from Holland.
“I wanted to work for a woman, and I wanted to work for a Democrat,” Ottenhoff recalled. “My adviser was able to get one of the two.”
Ottenhoff went on to do a summer internship in Washington, D.C., and then spent the final semester of her senior year on what was then called the Chicago Metropolitan Center Program (now the Chicago Semester). There she worked four days a week on welfare reform policies, engaging directly with welfare recipients, working to help them understand the new welfare reform laws and how such laws would affect them.
After graduation Ottenhoff stayed in Chicago and worked as an aide to the state’s speaker of the house, a job she later parlayed into her current role with Blagojevich, which she began in February of 2003.
“I wouldn’t have predicted this 10 years ago,” she said, “and I’m not sure where I’ll be 10 years from now. But at Calvin I learned about my obligation to take what I believe, and take the gifts I’ve been given, and help others. That’s a big part of why I ended up here. Government affects the lives of every single one of us. It’s important for me to be involved in government and make a difference in people’s lives.”
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