A Profile of Clark Mercer, Chief of Staff to the Governor of Virginia and "The Great Balancing Act" of a Chief of Staff

Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Clark Mercer comes from a family of waterman, fisherman and oyster, tobacco and dairy farmers. But his family’s connection is in large part as a result of the pursuit of roles in the public service. In the 1940s, Clark’s paternal grandfather joined the Air Force and was stationed at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia. Meanwhile, his maternal grandfather came to Virginia in a role with the Department of Agriculture.

Clark envisioned a career in public policy from a young age. He began his college experience at Yale University, choosing to study law because it “seemed like the thing to do if you wanted to work in public policy”. Clark graduated from Yale and returned to Virginia where he volunteered for local campaigns and sat on local boards and commissions. Shortly after, he enrolled in graduate school at The George Washington Institute of Public Policy. It was here that he developed an interest in working for local and state government.

A return to Washington DC reunited Clark with his old high school, where he coached the school’s soccer team for seven years while studying public housing policy. Clark’s experience as a coach equipped him with many transferable skills. He believes that people like to use sports catchphrases because they are applicable to many workplaces and aspects of life. Moreover, to be a successful leader in a sports team you need to set high expectations, be good at goal-setting and most importantly, demonstrate that you are willing to do the work yourself. The same is true in the chief of staff role.

Early Career

After completing his graduate studies, Clark worked as a consultant in the private sector and the government before moving into a role with Senator Mark Warner in his first run for the US Senate. Having observed how the defence industry works during his time as a consultant, Clark gained an interest in defence reform policy. As Clark’s role in Senator Warner’s senatorial run was coming to an end, Senator Jim Webb was beginning the second iteration of the Commission on Wartime Contracting. The commission would be the second in US history, the first examined WW2 defence contracting during the Truman administration. This time, the commission would look at all overseas defence contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clark would go on to work on the commission for three years.

As the commission concluded, Clark had his firstborn child. Looking for a fresh start, he moved with his wife, a career public servant who had worked for Senator Warner for 13 years, from Washington DC to Richmond. It was here that Clark first met then-candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Ralph Northam. Clark volunteered as Northam’s opponent in debate prep, a role he described as “interesting but awkward”. When Northam was successfully elected as Lieutenant Governor, he asked Clark to stay on as his chief of staff, a position he has now held for seven years.

In 2017, Northam ran a successful campaign in the gubernatorial election, but Clark admits he wasn’t sure if he was going to be kept on. At the press conference announcing his election win, Clark prepared Governor Northam’s transition remarks, which included major announcements about who would serve as his transition director. At the end of the governor’s scripted remarks, Northam surprised Clark by announcing that he would be staying on as his chief of staff.

The jump from Lieutenant Governor, a part-time role with a staff of only three people, to the Governor of Virginia, which has 100,000 commonwealth employees, was immense in both “scale and scope”. To prepare himself, Clark invited as many senior chiefs of staff as he could to join him for dinner in Richmond. At that table were chiefs of staff for both Republicans and Democrats. Clark listened and absorbed as much of the information as he could in what he described as a “long dinner…several hours long”.

Achievements, Challenges and Virginia’s One-Term Model

Clark and Governor Northam faced the immediate challenge of navigating Virginia’s one-term model. Clark described the difficulties of having a governor inaugurated within the first few days of his first of four legislative sessions. It is a model that is “by design to put the executive branch a step or two behind”. But they had an advantage, Lieutenant Governor Northam sat on previous Governor Terry McAuliffe’s cabinet. Consequently, he had already built the relationships and understanding of the multi-tiered bureaucratic structures that would normally take incumbent governors months to grasp.

As a pediatric neurologist, Northam has a managerial style that Clark describes as more akin to a doctor and a business owner than a politician. He does not micromanage Clark’s schedule and instead works with him to set goals before giving him the space to achieve them. Northam’s effectiveness as governor, Clark explains, is greatly influenced by his background in medicine – “at the operating table, you can’t afford to have an argument and leave, you have to work together to get things done”. It is this same attitude that Northam brings to governing, and it is why Clark believes he doesn’t get caught up in the political gridlock that consumes many politicians.

Clark has many achievements as chief of staff. During his tenure, they have succeeded in increasing the minimum wage, made the state a leader in clean energy solutions and regained Virginia’s title as the best state in the country for business. Clark is particularly passionate about Virginia’s potential to become a US leader in clean energy. He travelled with a delegation to Denmark to learn how Virginia could harness the power of offshore wind.

Like Justin Harding and Will Lawrence, Clark emphasised the successful legislation of Medicaid expansion as both his proudest achievement and greatest challenge. He vividly recalls when a Republican senator moved a motion in support of their proposal, a moment when he and the governor realised that they would be able to pass the historic bill. As a result of the legislation, 500,000 additional Virginians now have access to Medicaid. These successes would not have been possible if it weren’t for, in Clark’s words, “tenaciousness… and not a lot of vacations”.

Clark has now been a chief of staff for seven years. It is a role that he says is as much about listening as doing. He advises aspiring chiefs of staff to always try and be better listeners, to take a step back and not be rushed into decisions, to become adept at filtering information to your principal and to ensure that you are “including the right voices in the room”.

The chief of staff role, particularly in politics, can become all-consuming. Clark has learnt to always put things in perspective. It is easy, he explained, to get wrapped up in certain issues. But he always remembers as Governor Northam puts it, that “the sun will come up again tomorrow and we will deal with whatever comes”.

The Great Balancing Act of a Chief of Staff

A chief of staff is constantly balancing interests in their professional life. Given the demands of the role, the same is true in their personal life. Clark, however, is in a unique position. His wife Kelly is a career public servant, serving both Governor McAuliffe and Northam as Secretary of the Commonwealth. In this role, Kelly handles all board appointments, pardons, extraditions and paperwork issues.

Virginia is one of two states that require convicted criminals to petition the governor for the restoration of their civil rights upon their release from prison. Kelly has her name on more restoration orders than anyone else in US history. Clark says he is lucky that he has a partner who understands his role and can empathise with the demands of a public servant.

But balancing their demanding roles with the commitments of tending to a young family isn’t easy. They are fortunate that Governor Northam has always run a “family first policy”, implementing one of the most generous leave policies in the country.

While he isn’t sure what comes next, he knows that he wants to continue working in the public service. For now, however, he is focused on helping those within the governor’s office work out what’s next for them.

The Chief of Staff Association extends our best wishes to Clark and his family. We greatly appreciate his contribution to the first edition and congratulate him on his commitment and dedication to the chief of staff profession.