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What It's Like To Be A 'Sherpa' For A Supreme Court Nominee


Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has begun a familiar rite of passage. He's making the rounds on Capitol Hill. And as he goes from Senate office to Senate office, he's accompanied by former Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. Kyl has been tapped to be Kavanaugh's Sherpa. We wanted to get a sense of what a Sherpa actually does, so we called Kelly Ayotte. She was a Republican senator from New Hampshire, and she was Justice Neil Gorsuch's Sherpa last year. Welcome.

KELLY AYOTTE: Well, it's great to be on. Thank you.

CHANG: So what does a Sherpa exactly do? What is your role?

AYOTTE: Well, it's kind of a funny name, right...

CHANG: Yeah.

AYOTTE: ...'Cause a Sherpa means bringing someone up a mountain. And I guess often the...

CHANG: (Laughter) And carrying all the bags.

AYOTTE: Exactly. Often the confirmation process can be like that no matter who is the nominee. And so the Sherpa's job is really to first of all bring that person around to see the senators and to introduce him to the senators and also help prepare him for what particular senators might be interested in. And so you kind of do a little bit of everything of helping him through the process.

CHANG: And is there, like, a game plan that's tailored to each individual senator? It sounds like there is.

AYOTTE: Yeah. I don't think it's - I have to say I don't think from my experience it's that calculated. But it is important that you know what a senator's background is and what particular issues that they have focused on in their legislation or may be important to their states. If you think about Judge Kavanaugh, he's been on the D.C. circuit for 12 years. He hasn't necessarily been focusing on what each senator is interested in.

CHANG: Is there a moment that stands out in your mind when people were being people and the one-on-one was a more comfortable place to say things that maybe didn't happen in the open hearing?

AYOTTE: Well, yeah. There were actually many personal moments when I brought Justice Gorsuch around to meet the senators. We had close to 80 meetings, so there was a lot of personal discussion not so much about cases but just, you know, about family backgrounds and different experiences that the senators and the judge had had in his life.

CHANG: Was there a story that stands out in your memory?

AYOTTE: Well, one story was interesting that I will tell you. You know, I know Senator Feinstein didn't ultimately support Justice Gorsuch, but they had a conversation about horses because Justice Gorsuch - you know, he comes from Colorado and, you know, kind of has a history. One of his daughters rides horses. And actually, Senator Feinstein, when she was a girl, used to ride horses as well. So, you know, it's things like that that you wouldn't even think of that they develop a personal connection over.

CHANG: Though a connection that did not turn into a yes vote.

AYOTTE: It did not turn into a yes vote. But, you know, it was certainly a very personal moment.

CHANG: Were there any uncomfortable moments?

AYOTTE: Well, I think there's uncomfortable moments when the senators sometimes expect the judge to answer questions that he's just not able to answer within his judicial ethics. And so sometimes that can get uncomfortable.

CHANG: So you're saying some senators treat the one-on-one meeting kind of as a dress rehearsal for the hearing.

AYOTTE: Yeah, some do. You know, I have to say that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was very aggressive and making it very difficult for Justice Gorsuch to even answer the questions.

CHANG: How did Gorsuch respond in that case? Did he say, just wait till the hearing?

AYOTTE: No, Justice Gorsuch actually is a very calm person and just tried to patiently respond in any way that he thought was appropriate. You know, judges are used to dealing with people who often are in their most difficult moments, right? So treating people, no matter how they're coming at you, very calmly and with respect, that's almost - shows what kind of demeanor you're going to have on the bench. And that's how Justice Gorsuch handled himself. And I would expect that Judge Kavanaugh will handle himself the same.

CHANG: That's Kelly Ayotte, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire and Justice Gorsuch's former Sherpa. Thanks very much.

AYOTTE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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