OUTstanding Virginians 2011

Ellen Qualls


Some work for change from outside systems of power, some from within. Ellen Qualls is an insider. Until a few months ago, she held one of the most influential staff positions in electoral politics: strategy advisor to the Speaker of the House.

During the four years that Nancy Pelosi served as America’s first woman Speaker, Ellen helped direct the marketing behind the last Congress’ historic legislation. Her portfolio included health care reform, Wall Street reform, the Recovery Act, and the House’s clean energy bill. She coordinated the efforts of committee chairs and other key House members, the Obama White House, and allied groups, developing messages, planning issue campaigns around legislation, and providing rapid rebuttals to Republican or industry-led attacks.

During President-elect Obama’s transition, Ellen helped prepare Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu for Senate confirmation. She was successful in this role, as she was in her prior role as Mark Warner’s senior communications advisor. From Warner’s 2001 election as Virginia’s governor to his decision not to run for the presidency in 2006, Ellen helped shape his image as a bipartisan, pragmatic statesman. Ellen’s work surely contributed to Warner’s 80 percent approval rating on leaving office, as well as his consistently favorable press coverage.

Ellen got her communications background in local television as a reporter on Virginia politics and government. She was president of the Virginia Capitol Correspondents Association. She also worked in print journalism and local radio, where she was a news anchor and host of an afternoon talk show.

With Nancy Pelosi no longer Speaker, Ellen left government service at the beginning of 2011 to establish her own strategic and communications consulting firm.  She was also selected as a Resident Fellow this Spring at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, where she is leading a study group that’s an “inside” look at the last two years of Congressional action. As much as she loves politics, she welcomes having a break, at least for now. “As a win-or-lose business, politics can be frustrating,” Ellen says. Her new clients include a nonprofit group that aims to engage young people on public policy issues, and make their voices more powerful to politicians and policymakers. “Easier to sell than a politician,” she observes. She also enjoys the idealism of her Harvard students, though she sometimes finds herself defending politics as a team sport. “That’s how progress happens,” she tells them.

Throughout much of her adult life, and her career, Ellen has been out as a lesbian. True to her scholarly nature and PR training, she tried to manage her father’s reaction by offering useful background readings. He demurred, however, saying. “Is it OK if I just accept it and love you and don’t have to read all about it?”

Last year, Ellen married her longtime Canadian girlfriend Amanda in Canada, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005. A hundred guests came to their Quebec wedding, which Ellen refers to as “the ultimate coming out party” and “a great excuse to buy Valentino peek toe pumps.”  A few weeks later, their marriage got a shout-out from Nancy Pelosi at a Victory Fund event.

Being public about one’s sexual orientation is extremely important, Ellen believes. “If every gay or lesbian American came out, think of how many hearts they would touch,” she says. “Living with integrity, openness and honesty can’t help but change the world.” Leading by personal example is doubly important for someone in a position to influence the national discourse, Ellen observes: “I can think of instances where me standing in front of Mark Warner or Nancy Pelosi made a specific difference in the way they worded a public statement or the speed with which they pursued a policy.”

A realist, Ellen is neither overly impressed by recent steps toward equality nor overly worried about the forces opposing change. To give a recent example, she is proud that President Obama has decided not to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act, but she also accepts the fact that this year there is little political will to repeal it. Political change is usually incremental, she argues. And she quotes an analogy she just heard from Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who was an avid sailor: “You get to your destination by tacking back and forth. If you keep your eyes on the horizon you will get there.”