In the US House of Representatives as elsewhere, there are few points of broad agreement these days. But praise came quickly from both sides of the aisle when then President-elect Joe Biden announced in November 2019 that Shuwanza Goff (’06) would be joining his administration as deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs and liaison to the House.
The representatives had come to know Goff through her work as floor director for legislative operations for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. “She has a characteristic that I call the legislative temperament,” said UT Political Science Professor Mike Fitzgerald, who taught Goff in two courses. “This is the ability in people in public affairs to take the very patient long view and negotiate differences to accomplish the work.”
Just a year before, Goff had become the first African American woman to direct action on the House of Representatives floor. In a New York Times story in March 2019, Goff described entering rooms full of men, many with more experience than her, and having to tell them “what the plan is.” “That was challenging for me and something to grapple with,” she said.
AN EARLY INTEREST IN POLITICS AND UT
Born in New York City, Goff showed an early interest in politics, asking questions about candidates and pulling the lever in the voting booth for her mother, Hershular Smith-Goff, then a parole officer, and father, Robert Goff, who worked for the New York Transit Authority.
The family moved to Mechanicsville, Virginia, in 1995. One day in Goff’s sophomore English class at St. Gertrude High School, a UT alumna spoke glowingly about her alma mater. “She spoke about UT with such high regard and excitement that it piqued my interest,” Goff said. “From there I went to a visit, fell in love with the orange T, and the rest is history.”
She majored in political science at UT. “Her ambition was to pursue a career in public affairs,” said Fitzgerald. “She led by quiet example. I watched her work with students and faculty in a way that demonstrated an ability to negotiate.”
“The support that I received from all of the department’s faculty and staff truly helped to solidify my desire to pursue politics,” Goff said. “I’ve always known I was interested in and enjoyed politics, but the support of my political science professors helped to reinforce this.”
A REMARKABLE 12-YEAR RISE
Goff started as a staff assistant in Hoyer’s office in April 2008 while she was finishing her master’s in justice, law, and society at American University. She moved up to floor aide, floor assistant, deputy floor director, and deputy director of legislative operations. Then in 2013, she became floor director for legislative operations, where she helped shepherd the Democratic Caucus, understanding members’ priorities and helping them turn their legislative ideas into law.
Hoyer, who represents a district in Maryland, became House majority leader when control of the House shifted to the Democrats in 2016. As floor director, Goff kept tabs on bills being developed in committees and advised Hoyer on which should come to the House floor, working with other offices to make sure the votes were there for passage.
In her new role in Biden’s legislative affairs office, Goff has focused on COVID-19 relief legislation, with many more complex challenges sure to follow. In a January interview with Roll Call, Goff said she hoped her success can lead to opportunities for others. “It’s great to be the first,” she said. “But really, the responsibility is to ensure that we’re not the last.”
Photo by Hector Emanuel/New York Times/Redux