Donning a hard hat and fluorescent safety vest, Denise Turner Roth led members of Congress through one of the biggest government construction sites in the country, the half-built Department of Homeland Security complex in Southeast D.C.
It was budget season in Washington, and Roth was three months into overseeing the nearly 9,000 buildings the government occupies nationwide. The hulking homeland security project was badly behind schedule and overbudget. Roth, as head of the General Services Administration, was working to resuscitate its prospects on Capitol Hill by slimming it down and cutting costs.
She rattled off statistics about her plan. By reducing its size by 900,000 square feet, square feet per employee could drop from 230 to 155. The total cost could drop from $4.5 billion to $3.7 billion. Fifty-two historic buildings would be preserved on the campus, a former mental hospital in one of the poorest areas of the District.
She knew the numbers cold. But she knew a lot more that she wasn’t sharing.
Roth grew up during the 1970s and ’80s in a series of cramped apartments in and around Anacostia that she shared with her mother, one of them two blocks from the wall around St. Elizabeths Hospital.
This was Southeast D.C. in the Marion Barry mayoral years, when the District made national news for its failure to restrain crime and poverty. House-flipping, boutique retail and the arrival of white people were decades away.
As a middle-schooler, Roth would sometimes go to a McDonald’s that was across the street from the campus, and she knew what it was like to see patients from the hospital on the sidewalk, glassy-eyed and drooling.
Roth knew the boys on the stoop would cackle as she passed in her private-school uniform. She knew grown men to beat each other in the street.
In a town where touting one’s hard-knock roots can be a badge of honor, Roth does not hide the fact that she is from Anacostia, that her neighborhood endured near-constant violent crime, that she sometimes did homework by candlelight when there was no electricity. But she does not volunteer it.
“She does not hang a big lantern on that,” said Dan Tangherlini, who worked with Roth under D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and then preceded Roth as the head of the GSA. “There are some people who would have that story and would tell it every time that you saw them. Denise lets you find out.”
A self-described introvert and nerd who is “passionate about operations,” Roth had an easier time keeping her childhood in the background before getting the call from President Obama. As a local official in Greensboro, N.C., she was married, had her son, forged a close partnership with the mayor and rose to city manager despite brutal public attacks from opponents.
When she was offered the chance to work for Obama two years ago, it culminated a climb from Anacostia to the highest ranks of government. Her job takes her now to the haunts she long ago left behind. It’s an unexpected return, and she comes back with the expertise that could deliver 17,000 jobs — the sort of leg up the old neighborhood has never before seen.
“My name is Denise Roth. I am the administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration.”
“This is about the point at a cocktail party or a reception, after an awkward moment or two of silence, that I’m asked ‘You’re what? Whose administrative assistant? Oh, got it, you’re the GSA administrator’s secretary.’”
— Roth, in her December 2015 commencement address at George Mason University
Roth’s path to agency director, one in charge of a $27 billion budget and 12,000 employees, mostly follows a typical Washington résumé: high school on an elite suburban campus, college political science major, stint as a Hill staffer, then a series of escalating jobs in local government before getting called up by the feds.
Always a serious student, the work was never as hard as explaining herself was.
At her first internship as a teenager, she had to figure out how to dress for the office, borrowing a tweed suit from her brother’s girlfriend even though it was summertime. In high school at Bishop O’Connell in Arlington, Va., she discovered — despite having known only a few white people in her life — that she was among a handful of black students. As a staffer and campaign manager for then-Rep. Brad Miller (D) of North Carolina, she says, she was sometimes mistaken for an intern.
Roth, 42, said she doesn’t take the mistakes personally. “I don’t carry myself as if I am some sort of high-powered person,” she said. In interviews, she mostly reverts to short answers when discussing herself, unless there is a public-policy angle.
“I think people haven’t seen people of color, women in some positions,” she said. “People orient you and have a picture in the minds of who is the boss and who is the CEO, and we need to change that paradigm so it’s not such a surprise.”
Later she apologizes for not having more to say. “I’m sorry I just feel like I’m not really giving you much to work with,” she said.
She keeps returning to her career. After working briefly for the D.C. government, for then-Congressman James P. Moran (D-Va.) and for Miller, Roth came into her own professionally in Greensboro, a diverse city of 280,000 whose mayor at the time, Robbie Perkins, considered her a quick study who always did her homework. He proposed her for city manager, the highest-ranking non-elected post.
“We called Denise into the conference room, and I told her we were considering her for the job,” Perkins said. “She sat straight up in the chair and she looked me straight in the eye and looked at all the council members in the room and then went through a list, ‘One, two, three, four, five, this is what we’re going to do.’ ”
“She went into the situation with a plan, and that’s pretty consistent with who Denise is,” he added. “She has a gift and vision for what is going to happen, and it doesn’t happen by accident.”
Mary Vigue, who worked as a deputy under Roth, remembers her intent on making services work better for residents — and impatience getting there. “Heaven help the person who works for her who can’t keep up with her,” Vigue said.
Roth’s proudest achievements in Greensboro include launching a $65 million performing arts center scheduled to open next year and a 2.6-acre public park, both funded through public-private partnerships.
In North Carolina, Roth also met her future husband, Chip Roth, then a Teamsters official who now runs a Washington communications and lobbying firm. They had their son, C.J., now 6.
“It was a really tenuous time in the city’s history. There was a lot of turmoil with the police department,” said Rashad M. Young, who preceded Roth as city manager and worked closely with her on police issues.
Critics of Roth’s police oversight came after her. A former police captain called her “a corrupt, stupid liar” in a letter to the city. A former council candidate called her a “big-government, overpaid cog in the machine” and rendered a photo of Roth’s face onto a picture of a stripper covered in money.
Roth can laugh at the jabs because she said they came from the periphery, far enough on the fringe that they didn’t affect her work. She says she may even have a copy of the stripper art at home.
“You’re always part of where you come from,” she said. “So I can always remember what it was like. It still comes back when I face challenges. In Greensboro, people ask, ‘Hey what’s she doing?’ And it’s, like, I’ve had worse.”
“Imagine what it was like to walk to school in Anacostia in my uniform in the 198os. I was bombarded by negative messages: Who do you think you are? Why are you acting white? You’ll never get out of here.”
Follow Morris Road Southeast up the hill in Anacostia, past the school and the church, and a remarkable vista opens up — the river, then the Capitol, the Washington Monument and downtown. It’s a view unmatched by any other neighborhood.
Today the school building is home to the Washington School for Girls, but when Denise Turner found sanctuary here it was Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a small Catholic school.
She lived in a two-bedroom apartment with her mother on Pitts Place for most of her time there, one of a half-dozen apartments they shared, sometimes with some of her brothers, her grandmother and sometimes a cousin or family friend.
During her childhood, the District became a national shame for its crack-cocaine markets, blighted commercial corridors and inept government, one that managed its finances so badly that the federal government took over. From the time Roth was in first grade to when she was in high school the murder rate ballooned every single year, hitting 482 homicides in 1991 (more than four times the number in 2014).
Newspaper stories about the neighborhood then were about crime: a woman killed by a stray bullet in her kitchen; a man spraying bullets indiscriminately at an apartment building; the high school team’s tight end murdered in his front yard; police with semiautomatic weapons and wearing helmets and bulletproof vests storming homes in search of drug dealers.
Roth’s mother cleaned floors for a living and owned a car, but the lights weren’t always on, Roth said, and dinner sometimes consisted of a “sugar sandwich.” Her acceptance into Our Lady a few blocks away provided a refuge. She studied and stuck around with the nuns after school, baking lemon bread and putting on plays and dances.
But she still had to get there, and that meant walking up the hill in a gray and blue plaid skirt, matching sweater and socks or tights that drew ridicule from the public-school kids and the boys along the way. In the lot across the street from her apartment one afternoon, she remembers watching as an old man — in the pouring rain — was beaten by another wielding a cement block.
“It was a constant feeling of insecurity, whether it was food, whether it was money, whether it was safety,” she said. “You know, it just wasn’t solid. It wasn’t solid ground.”
As dysfunctional as the D.C. government was, when Roth’s mother got a break, it came from a Barry administration jobs program that landed her a position as a bank teller, which then led to a more senior position.
When Roth earned a partial scholarship to Bishop O’Connell and was accepted to George Mason, her mother was able to relocate to an Arlington apartment to qualify for in-state tuition.
Roth tells colleagues and friends that the leg up her mother received helped to inspire her own interest in improving government.
“One of the things Denise talked about was that watching the assistance that her mother got at that time helped her realize the effect that government can have on everyday lives,” said Vigue, who remains in touch with Roth. “I definitely think that story drove home for her the importance of that work.”
At O’Connell, Roth joined the dance team and was elected president of the student council. She never really looked back, until she moved back.
“This is the heart of what I want to share with you today: It does not matter what others think about us.
What stands out most in my life’s journey is that what we think of ourselves — how we assess and develop and apply our talents: This is the only measure of who we are and of what we can achieve.”
As GSA secretary, Roth oversees personnel still walking on eggshells from a conference scandal that ousted a previous administrator in 2012, as well as 375 million square feet of real estate in 8,800 buildings nationwide.
She is refocusing the agency as an “economic catalyst,” one that saves money competing for lower lease rates and sometimes brings jobs to communities in need — such as the one she grew up in.
In Detroit, for instance, rather than lease private space, the agency is buying a vacant building for $1 with the promise to rehab it.
“Our mission is to find the best value,” Roth said. “If we are complacent with our space as it currently is, then we’re not doing that. We have the opportunity to reduce our square footage. We have the opportunity to get better pricing on leases.”
Among her greatest challenges will be building a new headquarters for the FBI, which has been pushing to get out of the antiquated J. Edgar Hoover Building for more than a decade. Roth is trying to execute a land swap that some critics consider too complex or a poor value for the government. Private sector bids are due June 22.
The homeland security campus is nearly as prominent. When she inherited the project, it was a decade behind schedule and $1 billion over budget. The GSA has since slimmed the project down and won support from congressional appropriators. It is expected to bring 17,000 jobs to the neighborhood, the largest economic development project in the history of Southeast D.C.
Her colleagues in Greensboro were not surprised when she got the call from the Obama administration.
“She obviously has a big job now,” Perkins said, “but she will have other big jobs in the future.”
“I always thought that Denise was a rising star and that her career would not at all end in Greensboro,” said Young, now city administrator under D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.
Working for Obama carries a particular significance for Roth, and she has briefed him a handful of times including in a February meeting on cybersecurity efforts held in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. She said she wasn’t sure she would have come back for any other president.
“When I heard his speech on race and how he talked about the balance of all of us having a role and responsibility in our communities, regardless of race,” she said, “that was moving at a level that I haven’t heard a president or presidential candidate talk about in some time.”
When she and her husband began thinking about where in the District to live two years ago, she was pleased at how much more hospitable she felt D.C. had become for families.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised at the places where you can find community and you can find shopping and places to play without feeling threatened,” she said. “The city itself has changed quite a bit.”
But even when they settled on Capitol Hill — not three miles from where she grew up — she didn’t return to her old neighborhood until recently. In heels and khakis, she walked Pitts Place and Morris Road up the hill to Our Lady. She saw the old apartments, the courtyard where she used to play, the walk to school. It was a bumpy trip down memory lane that she may not take again soon.
“It was not an easy setting to live in. Revisiting that was not an easy idea,” she said. “It certainly was something that crossed my mind. I was going to go over at some point. In some ways, it’s a million miles away from where I am at right now.”