Hospitality on the Hill
The new National Press Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Biden-Harris Administration, Ilse Zuniga, discusses how emotional intelligence and trusting her instincts have led her to success in politics.
Ilse Zuniga (pronounced ill-say) immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 11 months old and spent most of her youth growing up in a city famed for its hospitality — Las Vegas. So naturally, when it came time for college, it made sense for Zuniga to study Hospitality Management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Degree aside, however, Zuniga always felt drawn to law and politics — so much so that, after graduation, Zuniga began working in law offices in Las Vegas and Washington State as she planned for her law degree.
Emphasis on Emotional Intelligence
While studying for the LSAT, Zuniga was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime. She trusted her instincts and took a leap of faith, accepting a life-changing position as Press Secretary for then-Congresswoman Jacky Rosen. Shortly after, Congresswoman Rosen became Senator Rosen, and Zuniga led her communications the whole way.
“It was a good fit for me and an excellent transition into the career of my dreams; it was perfect because I grew up in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, which was Congresswoman Rosen’s District. Since working in that position, my first position on the Hill, I’ve completely transitioned my career skills from hospitality to law firm to politics and comms.”
Congresswoman Jacky Rosen’s office opened a world of opportunities for Zuniga, who quickly realized the unmet need in politics for people of color and bilingual people. In addition, Zuniga brought with her a uniquely “Las Vegas” characteristic to her political career, helping her connect and get along with her colleagues:
“Getting along with people and having emotional intelligence gets you so far in politics. Sometimes you may be the most qualified person for a position on paper, but an inability to get along with people will prevent you from moving along in your career. So much of politics is about getting along, and that’s all hospitality,” says Zuniga.
One of Many “Lightbulb Moments”
At the beginning of her political communications career, Zuniga remembers being nervous about building the crucial initial relationships with reporters necessary for effective communications professionals.
“I was so afraid to say the wrong thing,” says Zuniga, “I almost treated them like they were another species.” Her “lightbulb” moment — one that continues to fortify her confidence to this day — came during a NALEO Educational Fund Staff Up Congress Communications Academy session.
After speaking directly with Capitol Hill reporters in a one-on-one Staff Up session, Zuniga realized a simple truth: “Reporters are just regular people doing their jobs, like me,” she said. “The goal is for us to help each other.”
Of all the directions her career could have taken — from hospitality to law to political communications — Zuniga is grateful to be in the position she is in today, National Press Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services in the Biden-Harris Administration. In this role, Zuniga works directly with the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, who — as the first Latino to hold this office in the history of the United States — has paved the way for the next generation of people of color in politics. He is also a long-time friend of NALEO.
“Never in my entire life did I think I would be in the Administration working in communications alongside such powerful and esteemed colleagues. It’s such a privilege,” says Zuniga. “I think I got here in part by being open-minded, seeing an opportunity, and taking it…and it couldn’t have worked out better.”