Serving the Speaker
It’s the second week the 83rd Texas Legislature is in session, and a steady stream of visitors is coming into the office of House Speaker Joe Straus.
Right by the door to the Speaker’s office is Channing Burke, a 1988 Southwestern graduate. Burke serves as the Speaker’s executive assistant, coordinating all the meetings he has with other members of the Texas Legislature. It’s a demanding − but also very rewarding − job.
“I get to meet people who have very interesting careers,” Burke says. “I can also connect the issues being debated with what stories appear in the news the next day.”
Burke is one of four Southwestern graduates who have ended up working for Speaker Straus, who is one of the most powerful people in Texas government. Burke joined the Speaker’s staff in late 2010 after having held a variety of jobs in government and public relations.
Another key member of Straus’s staff is 1996 graduate Andrew Blifford, who serves as the Speaker’s budget director. Blifford is responsible for advising the Speaker on everything related to state spending and revenue. “I keep him abreast of what the economy is doing and how much we have to spend,” he explains.
Blifford says Straus invited him to join his staff in 2009 after he was elected speaker. Blifford had previously worked for the chair of the House Appropriations Committee for eight years.
Kari Torres, a 2006 Southwestern graduate, has worked for Straus since before he was even elected Speaker. She joined his staff in September 2008 as his chief of staff and now serves as the Speaker’s director of administration and special programs, a position that involves overseeing the office correspondence process and internship program, as well as handling the Speaker’s statutory appointments process and planning large special events.
The latest Southwestern graduate to join the Speaker’s staff is Jason Embry, who serves as the Speaker’s press secretary. Embry, a 1998 graduate, joined the speaker’s staff in May 2012 after covering state government and politics for the Austin American-Statesman since 2004.
“From my days as a reporter, the Speaker and I had a good working relationship,” Embry says. “He was open and accessible to me and other reporters, which I think generally serves elected officials well. And so when he had some turnover in his Communications staff, I pursued it, visited with the Speaker and several around him, and we found that we could work well together.”
Embry says he interacts with the Speaker almost daily. They discuss handling calls for the media, how to present issues to the public, and overall messaging for the House. Embry says he also interacts with Blifford a lot. “What Andrew does has a lot of interest to the media,” he says.
While all four Southwestern graduates now find themselves working in the same place, they took very different paths to get there. In fact, the four of them did not even know at first that they had all graduated from the same school.
Burke comes from a family in Friendswood that has always been involved with public service. She knew as early as high school that she wanted to do something in politics. She worked as a messenger at the State Capitol when she was in high school and took a semester off while she was studying political science at Southwestern to work as an assistant sergeant in the Texas Senate, and later worked for the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Burke took 12 years off to work in the private sector, and her current position is the most recent since returning to the Capitol.
Torres got interested in politics after taking a First-Year Seminar on Political Ethics with Professor Tim O’Neill. She did an internship with State Rep. Burt Solomons her last semester at Southwestern and ended up getting hired to be the representative’s legislative assistant after she graduated with a double major in political science and Spanish.
As a student at Southwestern, Embry did an internship with the state representative from his hometown of Sugarland, but was still determined to pursue a career in journalism after graduation. After he finished covering Gov. Perry’s presidential campaign in 2012, he was looking to do something different.
Blifford says he never envisioned working at the capitol. After graduating from Southwestern with a degree in history, he went to work for the Texas Department of Economic Development as a government relations specialist.
“I thought I would do it for one session – that was 16 years ago,” he says.