A 27-year-old Lexington native and former aide to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh is on her way to the White House after she was appointed president-elect Joe Biden’s chief of staff for the Office of Communications.
Emma Riley, a 2012 graduate of Lexington High School, has risen quickly through the ranks of Democratic politics since serving as an intern on Walsh’s first mayoral campaign in 2013. Last year, she left a job in Walsh’s press office to join the Biden campaign.
Riley’s mother and father, a nurse and a computer analyst, “both worked multiple jobs” to provide her and her brother with a comfortable home and a quality public education in Lexington, instilling a strong work ethic in their children, she said.
“My parents and my brother are my absolute best friends, they always will be,” Riley said in a phone interview Tuesday. “They taught me very early on that I could do anything and be anything I wanted if I believed in myself and persevered through hard times. … They were really living examples of that.”
But Riley didn’t discover her passion for government until she attended Lexington High School, where teachers saw her interest in making change in the world and helped her understand the processes and people guiding public policy.
“They really opened my eyes to a world of politics and the larger world around me,” she said. “I didn’t know who my selectman was, or who was on the school board, growing up. And I really had no idea of the complexities of government and the role that it played in my life until I started an internship with Mayor Walsh.”
Over the course of two internships with Walsh, she fell in love with Boston and its city government, Riley said.
“Working for the mayor and going into different neighborhoods, and really gaining that life experience and hearing stories from other folks in the city, it was eye-opening for me,” she said.
“He taught me everything that I know about politics, “ Riley said of Walsh. “but most importantly, he really taught me that as a leader you have a responsibility to care for everyone, regardless of whether they voted for you or not.”
Riley went on to serve in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign while still a student at High Point University in North Carolina. She returned to Boston shortly after graduating and worked for Walsh until she joined the Biden campaign last year.
While working for Walsh, Riley met Annie Tomasini, a West Roxbury native who served as Biden’s traveling chief of staff during the campaign and will be his director of Oval Office operations. Tomasini became a mentor to Riley and encouraged her to join the campaign team.
“I just saw the way that she approached situations and people, and it was with kindness but also strength,” Riley said. “I’d really never seen a woman in my field manage those two so flawlessly. It really redefined in my mind what it meant to be successful as a woman in the political field.”
Along with Tomasini and Riley, Biden has selected at least four other Massachusetts natives to serve in his administration.
John Kerry, the former Massachusetts senator who served as secretary of state in the Obama administration, has been selected as the nation’s international climate czar. Gina McCarthy, a former head of the Environmental Protection Agency who grew up in Canton, was appointed senior adviser on climate change.
Jen O’Malley Dillon, who worked as Biden’s campaign manager and grew up in Jamaica Plain and Franklin, will be his deputy chief of staff. Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Massachusetts General Hospital’s infectious diseases chief and a Peabody native, is Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.