John Berry, director of the Office of Personnel Management, has mixed the… (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE…)
To the 70 gay donors gathered for cocktails and crab balls at a six-bedroom compound in Rehoboth Beach, Del., this summer, the campaign fundraiser for President Obama was headlined by . . . no one familiar.
John Berry — a Washington bureaucrat who runs an obscure agency in charge of federal workers — showed up in khakis and a striped dress shirt and started to work the crowd, which paid up to $2,500 each to be there.
“He’s not somebody you would pick out of a crowd as being a gay activist,” recalled Steve Elkins, a local advocate for LGBT issues.
And that’s just what makes the director of the Office of Personnel Management an asset to the Obama campaign, even if, at times, Berry has struck some activists as too ready to compromise.
On that summer evening, the unassuming but effervescent bureaucrat gave a passionate recitation of the president’s record on gay rights and a pledge that a second term would bring full equality. And threaded through those remarks was Berry’s personal story. It’s a tale of humanity that hasresonatedso widely that he’s become a quietfigurehead, not so much fighting a full-throated battle for gay rights as embodying a philosophical shift: Gay relationships, Berry suggests with his presence, are normal, humane, right. An openly gay man can run a federal agency. He’s accepted by conservative veterans.
Berry told the donors in Rehoboth how he made the risky decision at 25 to come out to his devout Catholic parents, his terror that they and God would reject him, his Marine father’s painful decision to ban Berry’s partner from the family’s Rockville home for Sunday dinners. And redemption: When the partner, Tom, was dying of AIDS in 1996, the elder Berry held him in his arms and told him he loved him as a son.
“I heard a cheerleader,” Elkins said after the fundraiser, which reeled in $30,000. “John’s a great ambassador.”
The political and personal have always been intertwined for Berry, 53, a career public servant who became, with Obama’s election, the highest-ranking openly gay federal official in history. But no more so than now as he takes on a new role helping reelect the president.
“We’re going to use the heck out of John,” said Brian Bond, a former White House adviser who is leading campaign outreach. “He has the kind of message you would want out there, amplifying the president’s message on many fronts.”
Wearing two hats
Officially, Berry oversees federal human resource policy, a job that includes reforming an infamously belabored hiring system, deciding whether to shut down the government when it snows and making government work “cool again.”
Unofficially, he’s the White House’s secret weapon in the fight to make being gay as acceptable as being straight — and not just in Barney Frank’s district.
“The president asked me to wear two hats,” Berry recalled of the marching orders Obama gave him in 2009. “Lead HR for the government and be the highest-ranking gay official.”
He toggles between those worlds, guiding HR managers in new ways to measure whether federal workers are doing a good job one month, keynoting for the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s Denver fundraiser another month.
His background is proof, Berry said, “that gays don’t need to be stereotyped. We don’t need to be hairdressers.” And he’s proud that his portfolio includes speaking to straight audiences about being gay. “The administration has encouraged me to do that.”
In a career that led him from legislative work on Capitol Hill to turning around the National Zoo (who else can brag that an adorable lion cub is named for him?), Berry has been openly gay in a risk-averse federal culture that still denies health benefits to partners of gay employees.
He has a reputation for owning up to missteps, for example publicly acknowledging management failures after a costly overhaul of the federal jobs board repeatedly crashed last fall and taking a drubbing on Capitol Hill.
Berry is a family man who’s engaged to his partner of 16 years, loves history (he just finished a biography of Ulysses S. Grant), walks his wheaten terrier, Hapa, in Dupont Circle every morning and looks and acts like Richie Cunningham. An aw-shucks guy who ends every speech with “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”
“To tell you the truth, we’re kind of boring,” Berry said with a laugh, describing life with Curtis Yee, a retired lawyer now in real estate. “He knows nothing about public service. I know nothing about business.”
All of which makes Berry a safe surrogate to send into mainstream America on the heels of the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the passage of hate-crimes legislation and the biggest victory for gays since Obama took office — his embrace in May of same-sex marriage.