On November 23, 2020, then President-elect Joe Biden announced that Shuwanza Goff—a 2006 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville—would join his administration as deputy director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs and liaison to the House of Representatives.
Praise came quickly from House members representing both sides of the aisle who had come to know Goff in her work over the past year as floor director for legislative operations for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D.-Md.). She has been a member of Hoyer’s staff since 2008.
“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 in order to accomplish the work. This would explain her success in the House of Representatives. She can bridge differences and be very patient about it, in large part due to her patient determination to attain a mutually beneficial result. That’s what you need in a White House legislative director.”
Just a year ago, Goff had become the first African American woman to direct action on the House of Representatives floor, which made her possibly “the single most important unelected official in Congress,” according to UT Political Science Professor Richard Pacelle.
In a New York Times story last March, 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 in UT
Born in New York City, Goff showed an interest in politics early, 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, an alumna spoke glowingly about her college alma mater. “She spoke about UT with such high regard and excitement that it piqued my interest in the university,” Goff said. “From there I went to a visit, fell in love with the orange T, and the rest is history.”
Majoring in political science, she took some of Fitzgerald’s classes. “Her ambition was to pursue a career in public affairs,” said Fitzgerald. “She was an excellent student. She displayed an ability to be an academic and social role model for her peers in the way she comported herself in class. She was thoughtful, well spoken, highly considerate of others. 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,” she said. “I’ve always known I was interested in and enjoyed politics, but the support of my political science professors helped to reinforce this.”
As a student alumni associate, Goff served on the executive committee and as alumni liaison. “When someone wanted students to assist on events,” remembers Mary Holtman-Reed, the longtime SAA advisor, “Shuwanza lined them up and gave them their marching orders. She was very dependable.”
Goff recently emailed Holtman-Reed, “My favorite part of being in SAA was being able to connect with alumni while also involving and educating current students in alumni related events. It was a large organization but always felt like we were a part of a small family working to promote the Volunteer spirit.”
Another alumni liaison duty was to serve on the National Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher Award committee. “I was honored to chair that committee,” said Fitzgerald, “and I was delighted to discover that Shuwanza was the student member. My first memory that pops up is her love of this institution. She was one of the most valuable members in evaluation of the faculty. She observed those who were nominated, every one of them.”
“While she was here,” wrote Fitzgerald in a grad school recommendation, “she was not afraid of a challenge, and, showing a healthy disregard for padding her GPA, she sought out challenging professors and courses. She was determined to get the very best out of her education. That made her memorable, and exceptional among her peers.”
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, deputy director of legislative operations, and then in 2013 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 became House majority leader when the House shifted to the Democrats in 2016. As floor director, Goff kept tabs on a number of bills being developed in committees and advised Hoyer on which bills should come to the House floor, working with other offices to make sure the votes were there for passage. As Goff said a year ago, “A large part of what I do is coordinate with committees, parliamentarians, the Senate, and to some extent the White House on what our agenda is and what we’re bringing to the floor for consideration.”
In her new role in Biden’s legislative affairs office, Goff has focused on the COVID-19 relief legislation, with many more complex challenges to follow. In a January 2021 Roll Call interview, Goff said 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.”
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