Jennifer O’Malley Dillon had barely started labor when she shut it all down.
Just two days after Ms O’Malley Dillon was appointed President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign manager, her operation was entirely distant, an early concession to a virus that would define the entire election.
Ms O’Malley Dillon, 44, found herself taking on tasks never before addressed by a campaign, such as setting up testing protocols to protect her staff and a 77-year-old candidate from a deadly virus, while trying to win a race that his party saw as an existential battle for the future of the country. His campaign war cry, according to friends and former staff: “We can do tough things.”
Ms O’Malley Dillon will now tackle another tough job when she takes on the role of Deputy Chief of Staff in the new Biden administration. A mainstay of Democratic politics, she has never worked in the White House and is a rare new admission to Mr. Biden’s inner circle of trusted aides. Should be tasked with managing White House operations – a job that has traditionally included logistics, administration and making sure the place is running on time – Ms O’Malley Dillon will join an administration facing a pandemic raging, economic instability and a fiercely divided country.
“She’s a restorative,” says Christina Reynolds, an old friend of Mrs. O’Malley Dillon and vice-president of Emily’s List, a leading group of democratic women. “She takes care of the situation you live in, not the situation you wish you had.”
The daughter of a school principal and an elementary school teacher, Ms. O’Malley Dillon has spent more than two decades working her way through Democratic Party politics. In 2003, she worked on Senator John Edwards’ first presidential campaign, where she met her husband, Patrick Dillon. (Their first date: the classic political terrain of the Iowa State Fair.)
In 2008, she led the Battlefield States Operation for Barack Obama’s presidential effort and became Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee after the election. Four years later, she was deputy director of Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign before setting up a public relations firm. His clients include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Stacey Abrams, a former Georgia minority leader who was briefly seen as a running mate for Mr. Biden.
Considered one of her party’s top organizational talents, O’Malley Dillon was asked for advice by various Democratic primary candidates before joining the campaign of former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
When Mr O’Rourke left the race, Anita Dunn, a longtime ally of Biden, asked Ms O’Malley Dillon to turn what was then a small Biden primary campaign into what has become a driving force behind the general elections. Although she has little to do with Mr Biden, the two found common ground in their Irish Catholic roots. He is my people, a friend of Mrs. O’Malley Dillon recalled his speech about Mr. Biden.
During the campaign, she ignored complaints within her party about Mr. Biden’s light travel schedule during the pandemic, but also charted a conventional approach to reclaiming the White by focusing on traditionally Democratic states who escaped the party in 2016 – Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Working from her home in suburban Washington, Mrs. O’Malley Dillon hosted late-night meetings from the seat of her Peloton bike and prepared her staff for the deployment of the Vice Presidential Pick with her 8-year-old binoculars and 3 year old son just off screen.
With Mr Biden’s victory, Ms O’Malley Dillon became the first woman to manage a successful Democratic presidential campaign. The only other woman to have managed a successful presidential campaign was Kellyanne Conway, who spent three months leading Donald J. Trump’s operation in 2016.
“Not only did Jen win a campaign against an incumbent president, which has only happened a few times in the past 200 years, but she got the highest popular vote ever in the midst of a global pandemic.” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic Strategist and co-founder of Ms. O’Malley Dillon’s firm. “It‘s a feat that will go down in the history books.”