Skip to special events list | NDSU Guides | Navigate NDSU Web


NDSU Magazine logo - Fall 2002

previous story next story

Fall 2002

Vol. 03, No. 1


Contents


PDF Version
(Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)


E-mail Us


Past Issues



For love of the game

Lucy Calautti stepped off the Greyhound into a March blizzard, learning the meaning of a 28-below-zero wind chill for the first time. A Navy veteran from Queens, in 1968 she was an unlikely immigrant to Jamestown, N.D. But much like homesteaders drawn by the promise of land and opportunity, Calautti came because Sandy Boyum - the only other woman in her squadron - had described North Dakota as the most pristine, clean, beautiful place in America. Not many weeks earlier, the freshly discharged women had gone to New York, ushered by Lucy's parents, eager to have their daughter home. But a garbage strike was in process. "The place was a pit," Calautti recalls. "It was the middle of winter and yet when you walked outside, everything was gray and black and covered in soot." An incredulous Boyum asked, "Why would I want to live here?" And she left for home.

The events that followed would link Lucy Calautti to North Dakota forever. She didn't know then that she would spend the next five years in Fargo, attending North Dakota State University, feeling her political oats, getting married, having a child, and graduating with a master's degree in English. She didn't know then that she would become inextricably involved with two of the most influential men in the nation's capital, two men dedicated to the best interests of her adopted state. She didn't know then that she would engineer one of the biggest political upsets in North Dakota history. And she didn't know then that after 20 years of federal service in the Navy and on Capitol Hill, she would become a lobbyist for Major League Baseball - the dreamiest job she could ever invent.

"I am not just a fan.
I am a maniac fan."

-Lucy Calautti, on baseball

The dream job comes with a corner office in one of the most prestigious law firms in Washington. The city has been Calautti's home away from home ever since 1987, when she went to work as House chief of staff for former state tax commissioner Byron Dorgan (D-ND). When she took leave in 2000, she and Sen. Dorgan had logged 27 years together in public service. Reminders of that relationship dot the walls of her office and desk. There's a picture of her and Dorgan in the Dodgers' locker room, bats poised for home runs. She's the petite, tanned woman in the fuchsia suit, smiling with her arms around Dorgan; her husband, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-ND) at her retirement party. "It's my team," she says.

Gesturing toward a pyramid of plastic-encased baseballs piled on her desk and a framed Trygve Olson cartoon on the wall, Calautti explains, "This is my little baseball shrine." The Fargo Forum published the cartoon, featuring Charlie Brown and Lucy on the pitcher's mound, when Calautti started her new job. "Look Charlie Brown," Calautti reads aloud, "you're a phenomenal loser, why don't you give me a chance to save the game." The caption below reads: "Lucy takes the mound for Major League Baseball." Her brown eyes sparkling, Calautti says, "It showed North Dakota was proud of me."

From her office, we walk on plush carpets, through a wide hall covered with rich, wood paneling, past a magnificent floral arrangement into a circular conference room. "Oh isn't this nice," she says, casting an approving glance at individual bowls of cut fruit, bagels, cream cheese, bottled juice and waiting coffee cups. Even though she requested the breakfast fare, she seems slightly surprised and very appreciative. "They are so wonderful here," she says, and then pours the coffee.

Calautti is the only executive at Baker & Hostetler who is not an attorney. As Major League Baseball's director of government relations she reports to commissioner Bud Selig, who is based in New York. Her office is in Washington, because she wanted to live in the same city as her husband, because it's where she needs to be to do her job, and because the firm's managing partner, Bill Schweitzer, also is on baseball's payroll. "So I have access to all of these wonderful attorneys, who are specialists in everything from anti-trust law to copyright law to labor law, so I don't have to be a lawyer. With my background I can strategize on how to work with the White House, how to work with Congress, how to work with the different departments of the executive branch. It's absolutely wonderful."

In casual conversation, Calautti's devotion to the game overshadows the politics of her job. "You've got to keep this in mind," she says earnestly, "I am not just a fan. I am a maniac fan." One does not have to look far, however, to see the stakes are high, very high. "With a roster of A-list owners and lobbyists," reported BusinessWeek Online in December 2001, "baseball is better positioned in Washington than any other sports league. Owners gave candidates more than $3.9 million in the last election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and MLB recently formed a political action committee. Its nearly $1 million lobbying payroll includes Lucy Calautti, wife of Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND), and William H. Schweitzer, an attorney for the Republican National Committee."

Calautti presents herself as singularly interested in the sport, a crusader for the national pastime. ("I feel like we are on the side of God here," she says.) At present, Major League Baseball's chief objective is to convince the players association that the best thing for them and for the game is revenue sharing. The goal is to even out revenues and make it possible for smaller clubs to hire ballplayers who can beat the big market clubs, she says, "so that in every small- or medium-sized city in America - that has a baseball team - the fans can hope and dream that their team will win the World Series. Right now, that's impossible as long as there is this competitive imbalance. Of all the things I work on, that's the most important thing."

Principled, passionate and pragmatic, Calautti has accomplished much both for her adopted state and for herself in the past 30 years. She's vibrant, physically fit, smart, articulate, laughs easily, and displays an honest blend of confidence and humility. "I used to be impulsive," Calautti says, telling how she "ran away" to join the Navy, not telling her parents, and how - when she ditched a medical photography job in New York to follow Sandy Boyum to North Dakota - she just got on a westbound train, not even bothering to pack a bag. "The less mature you are, the more impulsive you are," she says, "and I think I've grown. I would no longer characterize myself as impulsive. What I would say I have is a great sense of adventure."

When Calautti stepped off that bus in Jamestown, it was not love at first sight. Her love for North Dakota grew as she moved in with the Boyums, enrolled at Jamestown College, was treated with warmth by everyone she met, and finally witnessed spring on the prairie. The only thing Calautti had to change was schools; even with the G-I Bill, she couldn't afford tuition at a private college, so she enrolled at NDSU, and fell in love all over again. NDSU was fertile ground, a place to express her views and exercise her political muscles. She helped start the state's first public day care center on campus. She married Tom Maluski at Steele, N.D. - took his name, gave birth to their son Ivan in Fargo, and wrote a witty column for The Spectrum called Women's Lib, addressing issues like female stereotypes in the military and the demeaning milieu of female office workers.

"What was really happening for me was that several things were congealing," Calautti says. "The women's movement, civil rights and protesting the war. ... I got involved in the women's movement in a big way, and I mean a very big way. I started NOW (National Organization of Women) in North Dakota, and with several other women started the National Women's Caucus in North Dakota." Through these organizations, Calautti helped get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in North Dakota. "We were the last state in the nation to ratify it," Calautti says. "In other words, we got it done." It was her first indication that she was living in a place where the sky really was the limit.

"Being a very ambitious person, it is true that I have never had an impediment to getting ahead in North Dakota," Calautti says. "North Dakotans appreciate someone who is ready to roll up their sleeves and work hard, and not fake it. And that's me. And I've been rewarded time after time in North Dakota. And that's why I know I love it."

Calautti joined the Navy in the early 1960s for three reasons: she was a patriot, her parents couldn't afford to send her to college, and she wanted to write. But instead of making her a journalist, as she had hoped, the Navy trained Calautti as an aerial photographer. Once she got to NDSU, however, there was no keeping her typewriter still. "I can honestly say," recalls English Professor Bill Cosgrove, "that the recollection that comes to mind is the Faulkner thesis she wrote. How driven she was, how self-motivated." Calautti's career, he says, became "one of those magic stories" teachers love to follow.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Sen. Kent Conrad, Lucy Calautti and Sen. Byron Dorgan

"they are my team"

After graduation, Calautti planned to teach high school literature and someday, perhaps, work on her doctorate. But it was not to be. First, there was an unfortunate run-in with a superintendent, who rejected her application because "we hire only male English teachers so they can coach." Aware of the ins and outs of Title VII, Calautti presented her rejection letter to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And she got what she wanted: a job offer (so she could turn it down) and an apology. Then there was a brief teaching stint in the Fargo Public Schools, but her first real job after college, was writing for then state tax commissioner Byron Dorgan.

Calautti was hired in 1974 to translate state tax law into understandable language. She loved it, but what put her "in heaven" was using the knowledge and skills honed by her master's degree to supply her boss with pithy quotes and anecdotes for his speeches. That year Dorgan made his first bid for Congress. To run his campaign, he hired Kent Conrad, a young North Dakotan who had just finished his MBA at George Washington University. Calautti found Conrad "awfully young," while she says Conrad wondered what Dorgan saw in "this leftwing, out of touch person who wears combat boots." But as time went on, Calautti and Conrad began to respect each other's work and became friends.

When Dorgan ran for Congress again in 1980, Conrad, who had since completed an MBA at George Washington University, ran for state tax commissioner and won. Calautti, who had resigned her post with the tax department to work full time on Dorgan's campaign, stayed in Bismarck to run the new congressman's state office and raise her young son. That campaign, Calautti says, "helped prepare me for the biggest challenge of my life, and that was running Kent's U.S. Senate race in 1986. That was the biggest challenge, let me tell you, that was something."

The play-by-play of Conrad's 1986 campaign is a blend of politics and courtship. Conrad challenged veteran Sen. Mark Andrews for the seat he'd held for more than 25 years. Conrad, now divorced, asked Calautti, also now divorced, to be his campaign manager. The campaign focused on the economy, Andrews' vote for a "disastrous" farm bill, and a call for change. With less than a third of the funds Andrews had to spend, Conrad's camp worked 18 to 20 hour days, made homemade ads, and relentlessly shared Conrad's plan to get North Dakota and the nation's economy moving again. "When we won," Calautti says, "it was the story of the year in North Dakota, perhaps the story of the decade. Listening to national television commentators and reading the newspapers, it was like 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.'" This "Mr. Smith," however, did not go to Washington alone; Calautti became "Ms. Smith" on Valentine's Day 1987.

Calautti would never again run Conrad's campaign. "He can afford to hire someone now," she says, besides the roles of campaign manager and wife are quite different. One must be a relentless pusher, the other a nurturer, and when it comes to her husband, Calautti would rather be the latter. "We've been a team," she says. "Jean Guy (wife of former Gov. Bill Guy) has said it to me many times, 'Lucy, you've found the secret we found. In a political marriage you really have to be a team to make it work.'" Family is a top priority. Calautti is just as likely to brag about Conrad's daughter, Jessie, a straight-A student at Harvard who recently earned her master's at Cambridge, as she is her son Ivan, who works as an environmental activist saving old-growth trees on public lands in the Northwest.

The couple also is absolutely unified in their love of baseball, although for Conrad that means watching one game a night, and for Calautti it means watching two or three. Even before baseball was her job, Calautti and Conrad would wait for the last vote in the Senate and race off to Baltimore to see the Orioles play, or take vacations to spring training camps or fly to Puerto Rico to watch winter ball.

Calautti's early life tells like a baseball fairytale. Born on Aug. 12, 1946, she came from a working class family. Her mother worked as a bookkeeper and her father was a chandelier maker. Her dad loved baseball and shared that love with his daughter, frequently taking her to games at nearby Shea Stadium. When her parents were working, she'd come home to an empty apartment, the game on TV providing comfort and companionship. She'd wait up late for her dad so she could tell him the scores and share savory details of the games. And when the Yankees made the World Series in 1964, 18-year-old Calautti and her little brother stood in line at Yankee Stadium for bleacher tickets. Her only childhood career aspiration was to own a team. "I had no idea of how I was going to get that done," she says, "but I wanted to own a baseball team. That's how I would go to sleep at night. I'd get sleepy picturing it ... who I'd put on first base, who would be my general manager. It was really something."

In some ways it's surprising Calautti does not own a baseball team. Just about every other goal she's set her cap for she has achieved. The secrets of her success are tenacity, high standards and a readiness to jump into the trenches to work alongside her troops. Jenifer Urff, a Bismarck native, worked as a legislative counsel in Dorgan's House and Senate offices for a little more than two years. "Lucy is an extraordinary person in terms of being able to take control and make things happen," Urff says. "For a lot of people who go to work for Lucy, it's hard at first, because she never makes excuses and she doesn't easily accept excuses. It's difficult, but it's a great environment for learning how to be successful both on the Hill and whatever career choices people make." In a Calautti-run office, Urff says, the staff quickly learns that while good efforts are appreciated, "it's the results that count."

"I've done things that make me happy, and the rest has taken care of itself."

Happiness also counts big in Calautti's book. "One of the things I've always done," she says, "is I've done things that make me happy, and the rest has taken care of itself." Recalling her brief stint as a medical photographer in New York, she says, "I realized for the first time in my life, 'I'm not happy.' It only took about three weeks to figure that out. I don't allow myself to be unhappy for very long." When she became discontent working as Dorgan's chief of staff in the House, she left and ran her own consulting business for a year and a half. Then, in 1992, she managed Dorgan's campaign for the Senate, he won, and she became his senatorial chief of staff for the next eight years.

"I loved that job," she says. "First of all (in the Senate), you have more control. You have a larger staff you supervise. You are able to work on and influence a lot of issues. When some terrible things happened in North Dakota, like the terrible floods, I really felt I was able to help ... I was able to be helpful to Byron in ways that would have been harder for me as a staffer in the House." As chief of staff, she managed nearly 30 people on Dorgan's personal staff, plus the leadership staff, plus his committee staffs. She monitored policies and had a role in planning them. And she kept Dorgan's political house in order, doing everything from hiring his campaign team to making sure the books were kept properly. "We had a good close working relationship over many years," Dorgan says. "I would start a sentence and she could finish it; she would start a sentence, and I would finish it."

The only blight in all Calautti's public life befell her one night in 1990. She was almost inside the door of her Capitol Hill home, when a man chased her, knocked her down, put a gun to her head and started dragging her toward her car. Knowing bad things would happen if she got into the vehicle, in monotone she lied, "Oh, I locked the keys in the car." Angry, the man shoved her down the sidewalk. Twisting from his grasp, she ran into the street, let out a bloodcurdling scream and leapt into a stranger's car. The attacker pointed his gun at the vehicle and then ran. Calautti, adrenaline churning, told the driver to follow him. And they did, ducking each time the gunman took aim, but did not shoot. When the assailant jumped a fence, they dropped the chase.

Eventually, Calautti was able to identify her attacker in a police lineup. There was a trial and the man - an escapee already serving 25 years for rape - was returned to prison. Fighting, pursuing and prosecuting her attacker all helped Calautti bring closure to the traumatizing event. "But to this day," she says, "I look over my shoulder."

Hitting the 20-year mark of federal service got Calautti thinking about a new adventure. But she didn't know what that would be, until one night, visiting with Conrad, she mused, "The only other thing besides you and our kids and grandson that I have passion for is baseball." Whispering for effect, she says, "Baseball. 'You know,' I said to him, 'I've got to get a job in baseball.'" She put together a plan and started her "campaign." About two months later, she spotted Commissioner Selig at an All-Star game in Fenway Park. "I went down to where he was sitting and my heart was pounding, I mean it was pounding. I was almost hyperventilating. I introduced myself and said, 'I have many years of experience in Congress, may I call you about something.'" Selig said yes. The next week she called him. And the rest is history.

True retirement will come someday, with a big focus on her 8-year-old grandson, Carter, who already is a frequent companion as Calautti travels to baseball games across the country. As for her bright, hard-working, increasingly powerful husband, Calautti says he's got a great job and has no designs on the White House. "To be chairman of the budget committee," she says, "it's like he was born to do that." Conrad also continues to gain seniority on the finance and agriculture committees. "So you see," she says, "there are plenty more challenges for him in the Senate." It's the challenges, the politics, family and baseball, that make for eclectic, impassioned conversation around the Calautti-Conrad dinner table. "It's just as much fun to talk about his Medicare amendment as it is to talk baseball," Calautti says, "because that's kind of how we are."

-Catherine Jelsing


Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.