Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Way with words leads to governor’s office

650_Olympia Sonnier 3 SHANNON DeCELLEAs a student at Wheaton, Olympia Sonnier ’10 began her senior thesis with a quotation from Mario Cuomo, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Little did she know at the time how those words would come into play in her work life after college.

Now, as the deputy press secretary for Mario Cuomo’s son, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Sonnier helps make the “prose” of government understandable for the everyday New Yorker. And she is getting noticed for it: City and State in June named her one of the “40 Under 40” Rising Stars of New York Politics. 

Sonnier has a wide range of responsibilities, including drafting press releases and speeches, responding to media inquiries, traveling across the state with the governor and his staff, and organizing events. She also helps coordinate the rollout for high-priority initiatives. During the last two and a half years, Sonnier has helped produce events such as all three of the governor’s state-of-the-state addresses, executive budget presentations, and economic development conferences.  

She describes her job as making “all the legal jargon into something that any New Yorker can understand.”

650_Olympia Sonnier govenorBecause the governor’s office is involved in almost every aspect of public policy, this means Sonnier has learned about everything from fishing licenses to the intricacies of the complicated state budgeting process. To make these dry topics understandable and interesting, she tries to put a human face on them. For example, when Governor Cuomo proposed expanding the state’s DNA database in 2012, Sonnier coordinated more than 20 events with survivors and family members of victims, whose deaths may have been prevented if there had been a more comprehensive database.

A political science major and former editor-in-chief of the Wheaton Wire, Sonnier credits two of her professors for inspiring her to pursue a career in politics.

Professor David Powell, who taught Sonnier’s first class at Wheaton, “Post-Soviet Politics,” was her mentor and helped her present at Harvard University’s colloquium on Russian and Eurasian studies.

Sonnier credits Powell with helping to improve her writing and, more importantly, “showing me that a sense of humor is absolutely necessary in politics.”

Sonnier’s advisor, Professor Jay Goodman, suggested she work on political campaigns. As she recalls it, “He said, ‘You’re cut out for political campaigns. No sleep, bad hotels, bad food, unpredictable schedules and tons of adrenaline.’”

So, after graduating from Wheaton, she worked for Andrew Cuomo’s campaign in the communications office before landing her current position.

Although her job can be challenging at times, she still enjoys the fast-paced schedule and wide variety of tasks. “The great thing about working in the press office is that no two days are the same,” she says.

“The only thing that remains constant is that I work long hours and I always have two BlackBerries with me.”

She doesn’t spend all her time stuck at her desk. One of her favorite parts of the job is that she gets to travel all over the state. She has now seen all 62 of New York’s counties multiple times and discovered beautiful parts of the state she had never been to, even though she grew up in New York City. She also has been involved in helping with rebuilding efforts after three major hurricanes and storms (Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Sandy) battered New York during the past two years.

In the wake of the hurricanes, she helped coordinate the state’s communications during the response and recovery efforts. Though the devastation was immense, the hurricanes also allowed her to witness the best of her fellow New Yorkers.

“When the damage was upstate, New Yorkers came from downstate to help clean up and rebuild towns in the Catskills. And last fall, during Sandy, I met people who came from Buffalo and Albany to help unload food trucks and blankets to those who were hit hardest. It made me very proud to be a New Yorker.”

Photo by Shannon DeCelle