Law student reflects on political activism, new position to Kamala Harris
Serena Zacharias | Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Third-year law student Rachel Palermo said she became interested in politics when she was in high school.
Now she’s serving as the assistant press secretary to vice president Kamala Harris while finishing up her law degree.
“I think it all kind of started with high school speech team, and then it kind of spurred through extracurriculars in college from there,” Palermo said.
Palermo grew up in New Brighton, Minnesota, and was an undergraduate at St. Olaf College.
As student body president her senior year in college, Palermo said her cabinet focused on combating sexual assault on campus. That same year, former President Barack Obama and the White House Council on Women and Girls launched the “It’s On Us” campaign to raise awareness and prevent assault on college campuses.
“We took that very seriously at school and ran that campaign at our school, and that was something that I was really proud to be a part of,” Palermo said.
During college, Palermo also interned at the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. She knew she wanted to get a law degree by the time she was a senior, but a number of lawyers she met during undergraduate advised her to get some experience prior to law school. Taking that advice, Palermo got a job at the Democratic National Committee in Washington D.C. on their press team.
During the 2016 general election, she became assistant press secretary and the director of women’s media. Palermo kept busy by writing press releases, working on speeches, talking to reporters and traveling across the country to host events rallying people to vote for Hillary Clinton.
“The most fun experience I had was attending several of the Democratic primary debates to help run the entire press operation,” Palermo said in a follow-up email. “One of them had nearly 700 reporters in attendance, and a colleague and I managed all of the press logistics and facilitated interviews. That was an absolutely incredible experience.”
At a stop in South Bend, Palermo was first introduced to the city and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, not knowing she would eventually move to South Bend and work for the Buttigieg campaign.
After the election, Palermo began working for the communications team for SKDKnickerbocker, a consulting firm that supports Democratic politicians. As she worked in communications during and after the election, Palermo said she also sought out opportunities to be involved in legal work to get more experience before getting her law degree.
Palermo chose Notre Dame partly because the tight-knit community reminded her of St. Olaf.
“The way that people talked about Notre Dame, and the way that people talked about their experiences here, it just really seemed like people cared about each other and cared about the community,” Palermo said.
When she began law school, Palermo thought the political chapter in her life had ended. However, as rumors began to spread of Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, Palermo knew she wanted to be involved.
She volunteered at Buttigieg’s campaign announcement in the Studebaker building, helping with press again.
“It made me realize how much I missed being in that space,” Palermo said regarding the event.
Palermo was offered a legal externship and continued working for the Buttigieg campaign until he eventually dropped out of the race.
“It was an incredible way for me to still be pursuing my law degree and be learning the law but be back in the political space that I was in before law school,” Palermo said.
Meeting Buttigieg at a previous stage of her career made working as an extern “even more special,” Palermo said.
This past summer, Palermo began volunteering with the Biden campaign, helping on the legal team and working with Women for Biden after her summer job at a law firm in Washington D.C. got cut short.
“For all of us, it was very disappointing that our summers looked a lot different because of this horrible pandemic, but it allowed me to get involved with the campaign when I may not have been able to get as integrated,” Palermo said.
In September, Palermo joined the Biden-Harris Transition Team.
Palermo said she’s passionate about gender equity issues in particular. At Notre Dame, Palermo is the co-president of the Women’s Legal Forum, and at every stage of her career, Palermo said she has tried to focus on issues surrounding gender equity.
Palermo said she’s honored to serve as assistant press secretary to Vice President Kamala Harris and is grateful for the opportunity.
“We are at a time when our country is facing converging crises, we’re facing an economic crisis, a pandemic or reckoning on racial justice, a climate crisis and those are just a few of the urgent issues that we’re facing,” Palermo said. “I’m looking forward to playing a part in addressing [those issues] because I think that there’s a lot of work to be done. And I think that we’re at a really important time in our nation’s history to come together and try to figure out answers to these problems.”