Leader McConnell Pays Tribute to Deputy Chief of Staff, Don “Stew” Stewart

‘No matter what the day brought, I always knew what my Deputy Chief of Staff would bring: Razor-sharp instincts. A level head. A steady hand. And a boatload of integrity. For more than 12 years I entrusted Stew with my words, with my goals, and with my reputation. And he has never let me down. He never flagged. He never slowed. Our watchdog never lost a step. Totally trustworthy. Completely reliable. Unbelievably competent. The greatest luxury a leader could have.’

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made the following remarks on the Senate floor thanking trusted advisor and friend, Don “Stew” Stewart for his decades of Senate service:

“Madam President, few of us can aspire to the fame and fortune that are signified when a celebrity is known by just one name. There is ‘Cher.’ There was ‘Prince.’ There’s ‘Madonna.’ And there is ‘Stew.’ Everybody knows Stew. Not ‘Don Stewart.’ Certainly not ‘Don.’ Just Stew. For more than 12 years, Stew has been the larger-than-life personality patrolling the Ohio Clock corridor, camping out in the press gallery, and prowling the hallways of the Capitol complex. The guy who knows everything about policy, procedure, and communications with the office just off the Senate floor.

“Stew is one of the best-known staff members in all of Congress. It has been my great fortune to lean heavily on him every single day for more than a decade as my Communications Director and Deputy Chief of Staff. So, you can imagine, it is proving difficult to grasp that today is the very last workday I’ll have Stew by my side. After serving so well for so long, he is taking leave for greener pastures. So this morning, I am exacting a little revenge. I am doing the one thing that I suspect will make my Deputy Chief of Staff’s stomach churn more than anything else. I am turning the spotlight on him.

“Now, the complete ‘Legend of Stew’ is somewhat of a winding tale. This scrappy son of Riverside, California did not stroll a typical path to the corridors of power. What came after high school was work, including what I understand was a spell as a bouncer. I am certain that position offered no useful preparation at all for wrangling our distinguished friends in the press corps. Then came Army service. Then back to school in Georgia. And then politics. Our late colleague Senator Coverdell hired Stew to represent him with constituents. Not long after, he asked him to relocate to Washington.

“The way I understand it, the ink was barely dry on Stew’s lease and the unpacking had just started when his boss tragically passed away. But Stew landed on his feet. He found his way to a pair of tough Texans, handling press for Senator Gramm and then Senator Cornyn. He became famous as the Communications Director who could outsmart everybody and outwork everybody in a town where it’s hard enough to do either. That’s where Stew caught my eye. As I prepared in 2006 for the possibility of becoming Republican Leader, I knew we’d need the most sophisticated communications shop a Senate leader had ever constructed. And it was clear that Stew was the guy to build it.

“Something else quickly became clear, too: Stew was not quite like anybody else any of us had met before. One former colleague recalls that Stew would end a phone call with a plan already formed in his mind, then push off his desk with both hands, sending his rolling chair rocketing backwards and slamming into the wall behind him. That high-octane crash was the official notification that Stew was about to make something happen. ‘It was really endearing,’ this colleague explains... ‘in retrospect.’ Restless energy has always been Stew’s calling card. Every news story, every request from reporters, every shift in public sentiment -- Stew was on top of it all. Seven days a week, almost literally 24 hours a day.

“I was recently reminded that, in Stew’s early days with me, some around the Capitol questioned whether he was an actual person or some kind of automated email system our office had built to blast out memos and bulletins around the clock. The instant that mobile devices started to provide e-mail alerts, Stew’s bat-like sleeping habits and inexhaustible work ethic probably rendered half the alarm clocks in Washington obsolete. Questions. Answers. Press clippings. Battle plans. They’d pour into inboxes until after midnight, pause for a couple hours, and resume before anyone else had woken up.

“But circadian rhythms aren’t the only thing Stew’s presence re-programmed. His energy, his careful foresight, his patriotism, all these things were just as infectious. As our chief spokesman, key strategist, and close advisor. Team leader and morale-builder. Resident dog lover, heavy metal music aficionado, and happy warrior. Stew helped steer me and my office through the Iraq war; the financial crisis; seismic policy battles and nomination debates; three different presidents; and two re-election campaigns.

“No matter what the day brought, I always knew what my Deputy Chief of Staff would bring: Razor-sharp instincts. A level head. A steady hand. And a boatload of integrity. For more than 12 years I entrusted Stew with my words, with my goals, and with my reputation. And he has never let me down. He never flagged. He never slowed. Our watchdog never lost a step. Totally trustworthy. Completely reliable. Unbelievably competent. The greatest luxury a leader could have.

“Now, with these characteristics, you might think the person I’m describing could be a little stiff. A little stern. Maybe that energy would occasionally boil over into harsh words or heated moments. But remember, Stew is a bit of an unusual guy. That intensity doesn’t overflow into frustration, or unkindness, or sharp words. Instead it overflows into generosity, good-heartedness, and compassion. Stew is famous around Washington for his encyclopedic memory of birthdays, kids’ birthdays, and anniversaries. Like clockwork, notes and greeting cards arrive. Texts and e-mails roll in. What I’m saying is that work challenges aren’t the only things Stew is good at keeping in perspective.

“I was reminded of that fact a few months back when Stew brought his mother Nancy to visit the Senate. For all the history Stew has helped make, for every victory when he’s allowed himself a brief smile, his colleagues aren’t sure they’ve ever seen him happier than he was ushering his mom around these corridors and showing her all he’s built. And for all Stew’s own accomplishments, we aren’t sure we’ve ever seen him prouder than when he brags on his daughter Kylie. Lately, that’s meant her career in software engineering and the apps she’s created. Stew loves his family. He is loyal to his family. It’s just our good luck that he came to see the Senate as part of that family, too.

“My former chief of staff reminded me of a day he brought his boys to work. Stew loves kids, so he made a beeline. But one son felt a little shy. Instead of shrugging and walking away, it somehow occurred to Stew to say this: ‘Did you know I can do a standing jump right onto that table there?’ One more time for good measure -- this is kind of a unique individual. The boy was understandably perplexed. But then this friendly stranger crouched down and leapt right up onto the table. Tie, dress shoes, and everything. A total spectacle, just to put that young man at ease and coax a smile. Not your typical Senate moment.

“But that’s the thing. For me, and for all Stew’s colleagues, that level of good cheer and concern for others really has been typical for the last dozen years. That’s why his departure has triggered an avalanche of tributes from people all over Washington and beyond. People, many of them junior people, whom he wrote back with advice, met for coffee, shared some wisdom. This sprawling family tree of men and women who all feel that, one way or another, they owe a significant part of their success and careers to him. And on that note, I have to say -- I know exactly how they feel.

“So today, I have to say goodbye to an all-star staff leader who took his job about as seriously as anybody you will ever meet, but who took himself far less seriously than most people you’ll ever meet in the process. Professional excellence and personal humility are both rare virtues. Having a heavy dose of either one is impressive. But only the combination can explain Stew.

“There are plenty of people in this town who haven’t tackled nearly the challenges or rubbed nearly the elbows that he has -- but you better believe their egos dwarf his. His resume looks like he belongs in fancy cocktail parties in tony neighborhoods -- but I’m not positive Stew would even be allowed into fancy cocktail parties. And regardless, I doubt he’d find much time for the elite guests. He’d be too engrossed in conversation with the security guards, valet parking attendants, hospitality staff. Talking Nationals baseball and everything else under the sun with the people who actually made the thing go.

“Never before yesterday have I seen a large number of Capitol Police officers gather to surprise a departing Senate staffer and send him off as though he were one of their own. That is the admiration and love that Stew has for the men and women who keep us safe -- and vice versa. I know nothing I say today will really compete with that tribute. The only kind of man who would earn that sort of salute is the kind of man who would prize it above and beyond any fancy praise offered in a place like this. Don’t get me wrong. Stew reveres this institution. But he never once seemed to covet the trappings or the power for its own sake. He just seemed honored to serve.

“So my colleagues and I are sad to bid farewell to the Senate staffer who made himself thoroughly famous by trying not to make himself famous. We’re sorry to part with our tough-talking workaholic who can’t bypass a cute puppy without stopping for a good scratch and a photo shoot. And we will sorely miss our true-blue patriot who so loves this country, where a kid can grow up from working odd jobs to counseling Senators and statesmen and not lose an ounce of his character along the way. Stew -- we can’t quite imagine this place without you. But we are so grateful for what you’ve made it while you were here. Happy trails, buddy.”

Related Issues: Tributes