When she was first approached by Upper West Side Democrat Jerry Nadler to join his staff in 1999, Amy Rutkin told the Congress member she would work for him for “not one day over four years.” She’s retiring almost 25 years later, after becoming a local politics kingmaker, shepherding several major bills through, and rising to staff director of the Judiciary Committee. She will be replaced in January by fellow longtime staffers Robert Gottheim and John Doty.
While any American can sense the heightened political polarization, even hostility, that has taken hold across the country, Rutkin has seen the shift up close, on the level of day-to-day administration of the House of Representatives. Since former President Donald Trump entered office, she said relationships not just among members, but among their staffs, became more bitter than she had ever seen them. Her perspective on that is perhaps closest to the center of the issue, as she was majority staff director on the Judiciary Committee as it moved to impeach the former president twice – a move that Nadler once said he was deeply concerned would “tear the country apart.”
Rutkin’s departure fueled speculation that her 76-year-old boss, who has been in Congress since 1992, is considering retirement as well. Already a shadow race to replace him is simmering on the Upper West Side, but Rutkin vehemently denies that there is a connection between her decision and Nadler’s political future. Nadler is the dean of the New York delegation, and the most senior Jewish member of Congress – a role that has become more challenging amid the Israel-Hamas war. Rutkin described his place on “the very thin knife’s edge between the Jewish community and the progressive world.” Nadler has been steadfast in his support of Israel’s mission to eradicate Hamas and he hasn’t called for a ceasefire, though he is critical of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has, along with fellow New York Rep. Dan Goldman, called for “humanitarian pauses” to distribute aid to Palestinian civilians and he has condemned settler violence against Palestinians living in the West Bank.
For Rutkin’s part, she’s reflecting on decades of legislative accomplishments including the Respect for Marriage Act, the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act and the yet-to-be-passed George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But in her words, “after all this time, I think, at this age, I'd like to not do only things and other people's names, but do things in my own.”
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How does Congress look different now from when you started this work?
It's changed pretty dramatically. The functionality and the comity of the place has changed fundamentally in the time that I've been here. It was, even across heavy partisan divides, a place where you can do work on transportation in a completely bipartisan way. My boss was the most senior Democrat from the northeast on transportation for quite some time. And for years and years on the big transportation bills, we would work with the whole New York delegation, which was very mixed, to increase funding for mass transit, a critical area for everybody in New York.
And increasingly over the years. It went from an utterly you know, bi- or nonpartisan activity to everything being part of the kind of intense entrenched, partisan back and forth, the deeply ideological drive by what was first the Tea Party and now I guess you would call MAGA Republicans to turn everything into both a partisan wedge issue and to, frankly, to destroy the good functioning of government, in my view.
So when do you pinpoint that?
In the early 2000s, I began to see changes. Look, the Judiciary Committee is a great place to sort of look at the change. It is the most highly partisan place in the body because the safest Democrats and the safest Republicans go there. But when I first got there, the divides were along things that seemed very usual to me: There was a religious divide on abortion, so that debate would play out in an unsurprising way in the back and forth. It was almost choreographed in a certain way, because they had done it over and over and over again. Over time, the degree to which those debates remained civil and thoughtful, turned less civil and thoughtful. The quality of the agreement on facts began to degrade before my eyes, and the way in which the members treated each other became very, very different.
I came in in 2017 as the minority staff director. Still at that time on the staff level, there was just a commitment to protect the institution. The majority staff director, who worked for Bob Goodlatte, would have us in each week. Give us a sense of the legislation that was coming for the coming week: what the hearings would be, what the markups would be. And when I became the majority staff director of judiciary, I, of course, did the same thing, and that extended into impeachment one under Doug Collins. You know, there's a way in which the staff have to run the show. And it's a funny thing. Sometimes it's a little bit of, like, we take common cause against the members in a way because we have to make sure that the whole thing works properly.
I started noticing that there were attacks from members verbally at the chair, which would have never happened, the chair and the ranking member never ever attacked each other personally. That working relationship was really important. But I think when Trump came in and he very much changed the tone of the conduct of government, that began to change. And then soon thereafter, the quality of the relationship between the staff began to degrade much to my chagrin. I always had friends on the Republican side. Doug Collins’ staff, I would have in and we would, you know, laugh and talk and, you know, do our thing. But ultimately, particularly since Mr. Jordan has been in, the amount of tension and friction and hostile, hostile destruction – the comity that existed in that body feels gone. That feels really hard.
And you're stepping away as obviously there's this ongoing Israel-Hamas war, and Nadler has been pretty central in the dialogue around that in the House. Last night, we had, you know, major protests clashing with police outside the DNC headquarters. The New Republic had an article recently about how some staffers feel differently from their principals about the war and about calling for a ceasefire or not, calling for a pause or not. What are your thoughts about that and how that's playing out in the House?
Well, I think my boss and I have long lived on the very thin knife’s edge between the Jewish community and the progressive world. I think he would proudly call himself a truly progressive Zionist. He is a person who believes fundamentally in a Jewish and democratic state of Israel. That it has a right to defend itself, that Hamas, post-October 7, needs to be dismantled from its place in governance in Gaza. But he has also been a leader, I would say probably the congressional leader, on challenging the right-wing Netanyahu government, on calling out excessive settler violence, and doing everything he can to meaningfully contribute to a two-state solution. He is an equal opportunity condemner of those who would say “from the river to the sea” on the left side, because that picture doesn't include Jews. But also there's a Jewish expansionist version of “from the river to the sea,” that he also rejects. And we try to put our muscle, our political heft, where our mouth is to make sure that we preserve the dream of two people living side by side with full rights to self determination in states that are living in peace securely as neighbors.
This has been, I think, an extraordinarily hard time for him to be in this, both because he has tremendous agony for the victims of October 7, and the families who are still concerned about their loved ones who are hostages. He is, of course, concerned every day that we are doing everything we can to minimize civilian casualties and has led many statements and things calling on that, and to make sure that there's as much humanitarian relief, activity and supply as is humanly possible.
I do want to pivot a little bit back to your legacy. So you are known for your work on two impeachments of Trump. When the possibility of impeaching George W. Bush came up, Nadler was extremely resistant to that. And then when it came to Trump, he was quoted saying, “You have to be able to think at the beginning of the impeachment process that the evidence is so clear, of offenses so grave, that once you've laid out all the evidence, a good fraction of the opposition, the voters, will reluctantly admit to themselves they have to do it. Otherwise you have a partisan impeachment which will tear the country apart.” Do you think that that standard was reached?
I certainly think the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors was – I mean the second one we could see in real time. The first one, both the original Mueller portion and then ultimately, as it moved in, and we landed on Ukraine, I think, without question, we met the – as opposed to the Republicans who are now attempting to or are talking about impeaching President Biden for his interactions with his son, Hunter Biden, where I think they are nowhere near a coherent case or anywhere near reaching the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors – I think we overwhelmingly met that standard. What we didn't imagine and didn't fully understand is the degree to which the followers of Donald Trump are a cult. You cannot, in a certain way, use a logical argument to talk cult members out of their cult. And so his admonition that we had to be sure that we could convince you know, half the voters I think, goes to his sense. He has a sense that there's goodness and goodwill in almost everybody, and I think that speaks to that more than anything. I think he couldn't have seen really how much he would drive people to do things that are truly bad and they could never have imagined themselves doing in this country.
Yeah. Do you think the impeachments have torn the country apart? Would you say the country is being torn apart?
I wouldn't say that the impeachments were responsible for the country being torn apart. I mean, I think that we had a president who was fundamentally threatening and degrading our democracy, and there are lots of other complicated forces that resulted in what we call now extreme MAGA Republicanism. A view that Republicans literally want to destroy government is different than, “We want to have a smaller government.” I mean, the chaos that you've been watching in Washington, if you've been watching closely in the past few months is indicative of just how bananas, dangerously bananas, it's become. I wouldn't at all place the blame for the division in the country on the impeachment, though I know that both my boss and Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi were extraordinarily concerned about those things, and that's why it was a slow process. Even though we could see dangerous behavior very early in the game. It was a slow process.
And now looking back on that experience of being the staff director for the Judiciary Committee during those historic impeachments, do you have anything you wish would have gone differently?
I'm really proud of how the Democrats comported themselves in both of those impeachments. I think that it was complicated. He had done a lot of bad things. And some of those things were easier to explain than other things. We thought that a single count around Ukraine would be easy to understand. Actually, it turns out, not so easy to understand. And I don't know that we would have materially moved the dial even with this, but I do think that the inclusion of additional counts that were more accessible to the American public, if we had had the chance to press them, would have been both the right thing to do and perhaps strategically a better decision. Those decisions were not my decisions, but we certainly advocated – and it's well documented in books – to have a wider number of counts in impeachment one. Impeachment two was obviously a very different thing. And the members themselves were the victims of the very high crimes and misdemeanors that were committed, and so they could use their own eyes and their own experience. There was nothing more to do there. And I think that story was told very beautifully. And when Mitch McConnell stood up after and said, “Yes, I agree 100% with this, but I just can't vote for it because he's already out of office,” I think, told us everything we needed to know.
You've also been given credit for a lot of work on LGBTQ issues. Some people have given you credit for getting the Respect for Marriage Act over the finish line. Do you take credit for that too?
I mean, that was a lot of people, of course. … Ultimately, when the Dobbs decision came down, and Clarence Thomas gave his very famous commentary about what would happen to other things that were predicated on the same constitutional principle that Roe had been predicated on, it was very clear to me that same-sex marriage needed a belt and suspenders. So I assembled some very, very smart leading lawyers, including Robbie Kaplan and Mary Bonauto and Heather Sawyer. OK, this is the lesbian legal dream team.
… Very quickly, the advocacy world came in as (did) the LGBTQ Caucus in the House. Sometimes the House, it takes a decade, right? 911 health and compensation took what felt like my entire career. This was one of those rare moments where it's the right set of circumstances and the right people were able to move it through the House, move to the Senate. Tammy Baldwin's chief of staff was a very critical additional player, did yeoman's work – amazing work – on the Senate side as did many, many advocates. Somehow, like everyone just came together. So it's a cast of many many folks who can feel like it's their achievement collectively. I was very proud to go to the White House for that one, though. Listen, I feel really amazing. I got to lead the Judiciary Committee through one of its most prolific lawmaking times, but that one was one that I had been working on for my whole, really, my whole career. So I'm very, very proud of that one.
Your retirement, because you have this reputation as being such an integral part of his team, added fuel to that speculation that Nadler is approaching the end of his career too. Is that reasonable?
It is unequivocally untrue. He is running for reelection. My deciding that I should have a little speck of a normal post-congressional life does not speak at all to his desire and my expectation that he will continue to serve. He is running again. And Rob Gottheim and John Doty will lead that team on that side and Aaron Hiller, the committee. And I hope we will take back the House and he will be the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and have an even a more spectacular set of legislative achievements for that team.
But you must be aware that there's just rampant discussion of who would take over that seat because there are so many heavy hitters in that district.
That's always been the case. Yeah.
Scott Stringer, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, Mark Levine. You know, all these people who seem really popular and well liked.
Is this a discussion that you all have ever? Like who would be the best person to take on this legacy?
We are always focused, as are the three gentlemen that you just named, we are always focused on making sure that Jerry Nadler continues to represent that district. All three of them worked very hard for his reelection over many years. And there are many, many talented people in the district and myself, at the moment, (for whom) this is not a discussion at the moment. He is running for reelection. I know other people discuss it, but it's not a discussion that happens in Nadler-land.
And I have also heard that you do have pull in New York City politics and you're close with Brad Lander and that you were instrumental in getting Corey Johnson elected speaker. Do you deny that first of all, and do you plan to continue to have that kind of influence in New York City politics?
I have been very fortunate to be associated with some very outstanding public officials over time and I hope I have meaningfully contributed to their successes. They have gone on, many of them, to do many excellent things and I hope to continue helping all the good people who are willing to take on this very, very hard task of being in public life in the Twitter-whatever-age, in the social media age. You know, Jerry Nadler has long been committed to growing a farm team of excellent, the most high quality, good government oriented, liberal and progressive elected officials, and I will do everything I can to continue to help good people come into government if they would like my help.
You mentioned the Twitter age. And earlier when we were talking about the more acrimonious shift in Congress, I was surprised you didn't mention social media. But can you say more about what you mean by Twitter age, what you think about the impact of social media in general on American political discourse?
Much of social media, particularly in this moment during the war seems like a race to the horrible bottom where I think the way that the Jewish community is portrayed, or the algorithms, I think it's particularly poignant for me right now. I know that the vast majority of the American Jewish community holds pretty nuanced views about the situation. They believe in all, you know, the things Jerry believes in: that Israel should have a right to exist and defend itself and Hamas is a great threat that should be dismantled. Also, that there should be a two state solution and the Palestinians should be able to live freely and be governed as a good neighbor, side by side with Israel, even though that may be a complex thought, and and that they, if they're liberal, they've got you know, a lot of things to say about the current Israeli government. That mix is not discernible on Twitter. You can see “Ceasefire now,” or “Flatten Gaza.” And that's what it seems like the only thing you can see.
That's deeply troubling to me from how we conduct our understandings of things, and how quickly misinformation and disinformation spreads. When I talk about the Twitter age with respect to elected officials, that constant just psychological toll that if elected officials are looking at it because there's just constant raging and threats and just horrible things. This isn't to say that the public shouldn't have transparent access to their elected officials. But there is a degree to which it is a considerably heavier burden with the rage machines and the disinformation machines that seem to find themselves in today's social media.
Is Nadler interested in, or are you interested in any sort of legislative response to that?
That's a complicated question. President Trump has articulated a view about wanting to be able to have an individual right to go after the platform's themselves, and that concerns us. But we're equally concerned with hate online and the balancing of, you know, the protection of democracy and a free exchange of ideas, and making sure that we're thwarting hate and violence so that balancing act is a tremendously delicate one. That I imagine in the coming years. There will be many more conversations. Obviously it's complicated. It's extraordinarily complicated, as are all the things that we're seeing now in the war, right, the campus free speech and academic freedom questions set against discrimination of students and making sure that everybody's safe, very complicated.
But what I'm excited about is there are young people who are on the staff of these House members these days, who are twice as smart as I was at their age, who know twice as much. I feel very confident that good stuff’s going to happen when I leave that place.
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