Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Remi Yamamoto: The Chief of Staff’s Senior Communications Advisor
“Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Twelve years ago Remi Anne Matsuko Yamamoto chose these profound words of America’s 26th president as her senior-year salutation in ‘Iolani School’s yearbook. Perhaps this was a hint for what her future would soon look like.
Today, 28-year-old Yamamoto is senior advisor to Pres. Joseph “Joe” Biden’s Chief of Staff Ronald Klain. She manages communications for Klain and his two deputies (Jennifer O’Malley Dillon and Bruce Reed); for Steve Ricchetti, counselor to the president; and for Mike Donilon, senior advisor to the president.
In December, Yamamoto noted with pride on her Twitter account “I joined Joe Biden’s campaign 1.5 years ago (feels like a lifetime), because I believed in the change he knew was possible, in the country he knew [it] could be …”
Shortly after the Jan. 20 inauguration, I contacted Yamamoto in the midst of her being “so slammed” with settling in to a new apartment and job. Her family said her schedule is so hectic that they are lucky to squeeze in Sunday calls.
She is a yonsei whose parents are Dr. Chris and Beth Yamamoto. Her sister Kristen Yamamoto is a deputy city prosecutor and brother Justin Yamamoto is a physician.
Yamamoto was once Theresa Falk’s Eng-lish student at ‘Iolani School. Falk remembers that Yamamoto “never mentioned any specific political aspirations, but in ninth grade, when I had her for English class, she did a current-events speech that seemed to really propel her into a new sense of awareness. She spoke with new passion and engagement. It seemed like an ‘aha’ moment for her.”
Now Falk calls her one of her “spirit daughters,” because Yamamoto recently told her to empower her students with the belief that “they could do anything … Tell the girls they could do anything … if I can do this,” moving Falk to shed happy tears.
When Yamamoto returns home to Honolulu, she and Falk catch up on each other’s lives. “She would speak about her work, but she was always more interested in me and what I was going through. Her compassion and interest in the welfare of others, and the systems that impact them, was first and foremost in her mind.”
Falk’s last conversation with Yamamoto was a brief FaceTime visit before the November elections. “She did speak a little about her work, but she never went into much detail. She was just the same Remi that I have always known, kind and thoughtful and intensely interested in the world around her.”
Having taught at ‘Iolani for more than two decades, Falk reflects, “It is so beautiful to see your students grow up and succeed.” Students like Yamamoto, she adds, then turn around and “actually reach out [to their former teachers] and go ‘Yeah, I did it.’
“And to have her [Yamamoto] be someone my current students look up to!” marvels the teacher. “She is absolutely, you know, an inspiration for my current students across the gender spectrum.”
During a classroom discussion about women in politics, Falk referred to Yamamoto’s Vogue magazine profile of Oct. 30, 2020, and proudly told her students that this woman had been a member of their school’s Class of 2010 (the profile is in vogue.com/article/meet-remi-yamamoto-joe-biden-traveling-national-press-secretary).
Even with the students all wearing masks and face shields, Falk saw “all of their eyes just get really big. Oh my god, she’s one of us. And I said, ‘She is. She sat in the seats that you are now sitting in.’”
Yamamoto took only three years to graduate with honors from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 2013.
Yamamoto worked in Congress and the White House while attending college; she is no stranger to politics in the U.S. Her family says that she has always been “very focused,” pointing out that she somehow found time to work as an intern for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye while attending college.
After spending her junior year at the prestigious London School of Economics, Yamamoto graduated from George Washington University a semester early and was able to become a White House intern in the Obama administration’s communications office and the office of political strategy.
Yamamoto worked for two years at Precision Strategies, a marketing agency that advises Fortune 500 companies and political campaigns, which was founded in 2013 by now-Deputy Chief of Staff Dillon and other former Obama presidential campaign officials.
During Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president in 2016, Yamamoto was the regional press secretary in Virginia.
She worked as a communications specialist for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Iowa and Virginia before being named in April 2019 as the first Asian American traveling national press secretary for a presidential candidate. Her job was to be Biden’s eyes and ears on Twitter, and on the sites/feeds of cable and other news outlets, prepping Biden for interviews and managing the traveling press pool, according to a profile in that issue of Vogue magazine.
Just before the Nov. 3, 2020, general election, Yamamoto was caught in a mini-controversy when a Trump supporter posted a photo on Twitter of Biden not wearing a mask while talking to Yamamoto on a plane. The photo had been taken from that year-old Vogue magazine article about Yamamoto, back in 2019. It turned out that the photo had been shot before the first case of the coronavirus was reported and before world global health officials had urged the use of masks. Trump supporters tried to make it a political issue since Biden had been urging people to wear a mask to curb the spread of coronavirus while Trump had been mocking Biden for his position.
The Vogue article noted that Yamamoto had a special relationship with Biden that campaign staffers observed the two shared a “true mutual admiration and respect for one another…their relationship has really grown and strengthened over the course of this campaign.”
In the magazine profile, Charles Reed, then counselor to the president, said “Remi has one of the toughest jobs in politics.”
Another Biden aide, Symone Sanders, described the significance of Yamamoto in her role, noting that “one of the key people that travels with him [then-Presidential candidate Biden] on nearly every road trip, who is in charge of briefing him on the road and handling prep, is a millennial woman of color.”
Yamamoto remains grounded, however, not letting the prestige of being part of Biden’s White House team go to her head. In the magazine article, she joked that her “best friend” during the campaign was Downy Wrinkle Release and her traveling wardrobe was “a go-to All Saints jacket and a black turtleneck” which she could wear anywhere.
After the Vogue magazine piece was printed, Yamamoto sent Falk a text: “For your young women in your class. Tell them to believe.”
Yamamoto isn’t the first local resident to work in the White House as a communications specialist. Former television journalist and later Circuit Court Judge Karen Ahn served as an associate press secretary to Jodie Powell in the administration of Pres. Jimmy Carter in 1980. She also served as press secretary for Sen. Daniel Inouye during the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings.
Another Hawai‘i resident under consideration for a Biden cabinet position is Nani Coloretti, a 1987 ‘Iolani graduate, viewed as a possible leader of the Office of Management and Budget (which is temporarily headed by acting director Shalanda Young). She served as Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017. Following this service, she became Senior Vice President for Financial and Business Strategy and Treasurer at the Urban Institute. Coloretti has the backing of leading Asian American lawmakers in Congress, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois), Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawai‘i) and Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York), especially after the recent Atlanta shootings put pressure on the present administration to include accomplished government leaders of Asian descent in cabinet positions.
Theodore Roosevelt’s motivational message continues to resonate. Yamamoto’s voyage is also reflected in the words of late 1970s celebrity Casey Kasem. Himself an unlikely success as the son of Lebanese immigrants, this disc jockey, music historian, radio personality, actor and voice actor — who created and hosted several radio countdown programs, notably “American Top 40” — always closed his shows by saying, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.”
Note: The Economic Times in November reported that Biden’s White House seven-member top-level communications team will be entirely female – led by Biden campaign communications director Kate Bedingfield as White House communications director. Jen Psaki, a longtime Democratic spokeswoman, was named press secretary. Bedingfield served as communications director for Biden while he was vice president; and Psaki was a White House communications director and a spokesperson at the State Department when Obama was president.
Gregg K. Kakesako worked for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Gannett News Service and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for more than four decades as a government, political and military affairs reporter and assistant city editor.