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Name: Berry, John
Current Position: Former Director

Gay rights activists were delighted by the news that President Barack Obama had chosen M. John Berry to lead the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). As head of the federal government’s central Human Resources operation, Berry is expected to advance the cause of domestic partnerships, along with becoming the highest ranking, openly gay member of a presidential administration. He was confirmed by the Senate on April 3, 2009 and sworn in on April 23.

Berry was raised Catholic in Rockville, Maryland, His mother, Alberta Opalko Berry, was an X-ray and MRI technician who later became a real estate agent. His father, Morrell Joesph Berry, was a salesman for moving companies. Berry earned a Bachelor of Arts in government and politics from the University of Maryland, summa cum laude, in 1980. He went on to earn his Master of Public Administration in 1981 from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, as a Herbert H. Lehman Fellow.
From 1984 to 1985, Berry served as the Maryland Senate Finance Committee Staff Director for the state General Assembly’s Department of Fiscal Services. From 1985 until 1994, he worked as a staffer in the US House of Representatives, first for the House Appropriations Committee and then as legislative director for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD). During that time, he was Hoyer’s lead on federal employee policy issues, helping to guide the negotiations that led to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act, which established the locality pay system, in which salaries are adjusted according to the location of the job.
Following his Congressional work, Berry served at the Department of the Treasury (1994-1995) as deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary for law enforcement, later assuming the role of assistant secretary for policy, management and budget.
He became director of government relations and a senior policy advisor in 1995 for the Smithsonian Institution, reporting to Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman and Under Secretary Constance Berry Newman. During that time, Berry helped secure federal funds for the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Air and Space Museum’s Hazy Center.
In 1996, Berry’s companion of 11 years, Thomas Leishman, died of AIDS.
In 1997, Berry left the Smithsonian to become Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the Department of the Interior. During his tenure, he developed a presidential initiative known as the “Lands Legacy Initiative” and oversaw programs to improve employees’ work-life balance. He also worked to create a grievance procedure for employees who experience discrimination because of their sexual orientation, expand relocation benefits and counseling services to the domestic partners of employees, establish a liaison to gay and lesbian workers, and eliminate discriminatory provisions of the National Park Service’s law enforcement standards, including a ban on security clearances for gay and lesbian employees. In 1999, Berry was instrumental in adding to the National Register of Historic Places The Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, where, thirty years earlier, gay patrons had fought back during a police raid.
In addition, Berry held town hall meetings to elicit suggestions, leading to upgrades to the Interior cafeteria and health center, and also improved the department’s credit union and continuing education options. Berry funded a number of those enhancements through partnerships with unions, other agencies and even employees, and in the process reduced overall costs to the department.
After President Clinton left office in 2001, Berry became executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a Congressionally chartered nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of the nation’s wildlife resources. He managed an annual operating budget of $9.5 million and a 75-member staff in six regional centers. During his tenure, Berry overhauled the foundation’s financial systems, while working with then-inspector general of the Department of Interior Earl Devaney.
In 2005, Berry became director (annual salary: $225,000) of the National Zoological Park, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution. As director of the National Zoo, he oversaw both the 163-acre facility in Washington, DC, and the 3,200-acre Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, VA. Berry implemented a management reorganization, a 20- year capital master plan and secured funding for infrastructural improvements.
John Gage, president of American Federation of Government Employees, said the union had recommended Berry to the Obama administration. Gage said he expected to work with Berry on issues including giving federal employees college credit for training courses, reforming the classification system and increasing union involvement in shaping the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Berry’s nomination also won support from the National Treasury Employees Union.
Berry is known as an advocate for gay and lesbian federal employees. According to the Human Rights Campaign, if confirmed, he will be the highest-ranking openly gay official to serve in the executive branch in any administration. Some gay rights advocates expect Berry to implement rules at OPM to allow domestic partners of federal employees to receive health and retirement benefits. Under the Bush administration, OPM argued against such a policy, claiming that extending partner benefits was too risky because gay and lesbian federal employees might commit fraud to get them.
Other openly gay appointments by President Obama include Nancy Sutley, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Fred P. Hochberg, head of the Export-Import Bank.
During his confirmation hearing for Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget in 1997, Berry said that both of his parents were Republicans. “We had an even partisan split around our dinner table—which was important in forging my appreciation that no one party holds the lock on truth, and my belief that the best decisions come from a search for common ground through well-intentioned debate.”
John Berry named OPM director (by Alyssa Rosenberg, Government Executive)
Feds Could Gain Champion for Domestic Partner Benefits (by Alyssa Rosenberg, Government Executive)
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