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Alum's job: Be friends with a senator

BY DAVE MEKELBURG

Published September 25, 2006

Every so often, recent University graduate Nick Colvin looks out into the Washington traffic to see a cab driver, window down, declaring his support for Sen. Barack Obama.

Angela Cesere
Nick Colvin, who graduated from the University this spring, is now the personal assistant of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

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For Colvin, scenes like these are reminders that the man sitting next to him in the car is not only the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, he's a national star.

It's only his first term in the senate, but Obama's already become a Democratic darling. He delivered a key speech at the Democratic National Convention, he's the only black Senator on Capitol Hill and whispers around Washington hint that he might have presidential ambitions.

But as Obama's personal assistant, Colvin has a closer view of him.

"He's just Barack to me," Colvin said.

Colvin does not follow Obama home to Illinois on weekends, but from Monday night to Thursday afternoon, he works with him 11 to 16 hours a day.

Most of Colvin's friends don't understand what the job of a personal assistant entails.

"They ask if I ever get to see him or talk to him," he said, laughing.

Colvin likened himself to Charlie Young, the character on "The West Wing" who is the personal aide to fictional U.S. President Jed Bartlet.

Colvin doesn't work at an anonymous desk in the back of a campaign office, far from the action. Instead, he spends his hours in close company with the senator.

The job of waking up Obama often belongs to Colvin. After the wake-up call, the agenda changes daily. On Thursdays, it's "Constituent Coffee" with Illinois residents and senior Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin. Another day, it might be delivering a speech about genetic research.

According to Colvin, only a handful of senators have personal assistants.

He said the personal assistants often gather to trade stories about their jobs. Colvin always has a story to tell.

In his short time with the senator, Colvin met Muhammad Ali, dined with U.N. ambassadors and talked on the phone with Stevie Wonder. He saw Obama mobbed by admirers in Kenya and at political rallies nationwide.

But the public face of Obama isn't the only one Colvin knows.

Instead, Colvin revealed an Obama who jokes with him in between press conferences, trading friendly jibes back and forth.

"A lot of people wouldn't get in a car with Barack Obama and tease him back," Colvin said.

The meat of Colvin's job is in these "in-between" moments in the car on the way to the next events.

A lot of the time, Colvin and Obama just talk.

Often, Colvin said, he and the senator have heart-to-heart conversations. Topics cover family history, what shaped Obama's beliefs and political actions and even Michigan football.

"He was pretty enthusiastic about Michigan beating Notre Dame," Colvin said

Obama went to school at Columbia and Harvard universities, so Colvin said they spend a lot of time talking about the finer points of a large school.

"I explain to him about Rick's and Scorekeeper's and football games," he said.

Colvin said Obama has an eclectic taste in music, listening to everything from Indonesian flute music to OutKast to Motown.

Colvin said he never expected to hold such a high-profile job. Just a few months ago, he was interning in Washington in the office of U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.).

He spent his time there on a mission: networking with as many people as possible.

At the University, Colvin was a political science major with a minor in African-American studies. The native of Ionia said he did well in his classes and was on a path toward law school and possibly a career in politics.

It was over the summer, however, that he realized he might have to put his plans on hold. Through one of the contacts he met while interning, he landed an interview with Obama's office. He sat down in front of the senator's entire staff and went through the interview process with each member observing him closely. After a short waiting period, he got the call: The staff wanted him to come back and meet the senator. Colvin and Obama sat down and talked for 45 minutes, he said, and they "basically just hit it off."

Soon afterward, he got another call, the one he'd been hoping for. He was asked to join Obama's staff.

He had his choice between two available positions: staff assistant or the senator's personal assistant. Colvin jumped at the opportunity to be Obama's personal assistant.

Though he knows he wants to go to law school, Colvin said he is not sure about his plans for the future. One thing is certain: He wants to embody what Obama means to him - not for the prestige or the political power, but for the good, humble person he said he sees everyday.

"I don't want to be U.S. Senator Barack Obama," he said. "I want to be Barack Obama."

Obama, one of the rising stars in the Democratic Party, has drawn speculation over whether he will run for president or vice president in 2008.

Colvin's take?

"He's flattered by the attention," Colvin said, adding that Obama is just trying to do his job right now. "A lot of people never thought he'd be a U.S. senator."


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