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Twins of the Hill

Kaitlynn Riely | Friday, October 3, 2008

Notre Dame seniors Diana and Donna Defino are planning to vote for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama for president this fall.

The identical twins are in agreement – they support Obama and they are confident he will win in November.

But last fall and through the primary season, the loyalties of the Definos were split between the two leading Democratic nominees, Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The twins worked on Capitol Hill as part of the Notre Dame Washington Program during the fall of 2007 – long before the opening primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Donna worked for Obama’s Senate office and Diana worked for Sen. Clinton’s.

“People always said, ‘Oh, you guys should switch offices one day and see if anyone noticed.’ But we never did that. I think we’d be too nervous,” Donna said.

Obama’s office is in the Hart Senate Office Building, and Clinton’s is in the Russell, so the Definos seldom crossed paths while they were working. But at lunch, Donna and other interns from Obama’s office met with Diana and the Clinton interns. The first day, Donna said, they joked about rumors starting if people noticed the Clinton and Obama camps eating together.

“We were just like, ‘Watch, the next day the front page of the newspaper is going to be, “Hillary and Barack’s interns eat lunch together – trading top secret information.”

But the interns all ended up being friends, the Definos said, and working for rival presidential candidates didn’t lead to fights in the Washington Program living quarters after work.

‘Completely undecided’

When Diana Delfino received an e-mail sophomore year about Notre Dame’s Washington Program, she told her sister, a fellow political science major, about it. They both loved politics, and Diana said she thought the program would be a good way to decide what to do with her political science degree. Once they were accepted to the Washington Program, they both applied to several locations in Washington, D.C., including to Clinton’s and Obama’s Senate offices.

Diana was accepted to both offices. Donna was accepted to Obama’s, and had to give them an answer before she could interview with the Clinton office, so she decided to accept the Obama offer. Diana signed on with Clinton.

“We were both completely undecided,” Diana Defino said. “That actually made the decision harder, because I hadn’t picked who I wanted to support for the election.”

Once in Washington, the Definos worked three days per week for nine hours per day on Capitol Hill. They responded to letters, answered phones, ran errands, gave Capitol tours to constituents, went to Congressional hearings and conducted research for staffers.

Then one day, they met the man and woman they’d been working for.

‘This aura’

A year later, Diana and Donna Defino still have vivid memories of the moment they met their respective bosses – and they both used the phrase “this aura” to describe the presence of their respective senators. One Wednesday morning, Donna said, there was a gap in Obama’s schedule, so he decided to come to his office just to meet the interns. The interns were waiting for him, Donna said, and when Obama arrived, he walked right up to her and introduced himself. He asked Donna where she was from and where she went to school. She told him she was a student at the University of Notre Dame.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she remembers him replying. “Sorry to hear about your football team.”

The interns had an informal meeting with Obama and got to ask him questions about issues they were curious about, Donna said. On television, she said, Obama comes across as eloquent and thoughtful. He is the same way in person, she said.

Diana had a surprise meeting with Clinton, when one morning her intern coordinator took three of the interns with him and told them, shortly before her car pulled up, that they were about to meet the senator.

Clinton pulled up to the curb with her Secret Service detail and exited the back right door, close to where Diana was standing.

“She got out and I was just so nervous, I didn’t know what to do,” Diana said. “So I just stood there with my jaw open, just staring at her. I didn’t know if I should talk to her … but she just walked up to me and put her hand out and said, ‘Hi, I’m Hillary. What’s your name?'”

Diana said she saw Clinton around the office at least once a week, and said from her perspective, the senator was much more “personable” than the way she appears on television.

“She’s one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met,” Diana said. “She’s so friendly and she just has this aura around her that makes you smile.”

Diana never met Obama, and Donna never met Clinton, but they saw each saw their sister’s senators from a distance during roll call votes in the Senate.

‘Almost identical’

Diana and Donna arrived in Washington sure they would vote for a Democrat in November 2008, but not sure which Democrat they wanted to be the nominee. Through working with Clinton’s staffers in the office and researching her accomplishments and legislation, Diana soon became a Clinton supporter.

“I definitely wanted her to win the nomination,” she said. “I really supported her. It was hard when she did not win.”

Over in Obama’s office, Donna was leaning more and more towards Obama.

The Definos agree they are identical in more than just appearance – they have the same major, same minor, same interests, same political views. How then, can identical twins divide their support for the two candidates embroiled in a battle for the Democratic nomination?

Donna suggested that she and Diana were working for senators who could, in many ways, be described as identical.

“When you compare the two candidates closely, you can see how truly similar they are,” she said. “Compared to others, their positions are almost identical on many issues.”

Clinton and Obama were both “amazing candidates,” Donna said, and both would have made great presidents. But her experience working closely with Obama’s staffers and interns, all of whom were enthusiastic about the senator, increased her enthusiasm about him.

“They really believe in him as a politician, senator and presidential candidate for making a difference in people’s everyday lives,” Donna said. As an intern, Donna had to learn more about Obama’s positions and his legislation so she could explain his decisions to his constituents.

“Being surrounded by that every day probably swayed my support towards him because of that,” Donna said. Her sister had the same “in-depth perspective” for Clinton, and that’s why she supported her during the primary.

But now that Obama is the Democratic presidential nominee, they have both thrown their full support behind the senator from Illinois.

The two seniors are planning to return to Washington after graduation and work in politics in some capacity.

“I am confident that Sen. Obama is going to win, so I don’t know if it is wishful thinking that maybe I could get a job in the White House after I graduate,” Donna said. If Obama wins, she said she would be calling her contacts in his Senate office.

“If Donna gets a job,” Diana said, “I will have her get me one, too.”