(JTA) — Brennan Leach wants you to know, first of all, that the caption on the viral photo of her taken inside the U.S. Capitol building on Wednesday was wrong.
The Jewish college student wasn’t rescuing the august leather boxes carrying the electoral votes that would let Congress certify Joe Biden’s election from the mob of Trump supporters trying to stop that process. The photo was from earlier that morning, when she and other assistants brought the boxes into the U.S. House of Representatives chamber, before the mob stormed the Capitol and drove lawmakers and staffers into hiding.
“It was a great honor and excitement, it was like a political science nerd’s dream come true,” Leach told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about being asked to partake in the ritual.
Leach, 19, is a student at Northwestern University majoring in political science who returned to the Capitol this week to assist with the certification process because the program that usually supplies high school pages is suspended because of the pandemic. Someone snapped a picture of her at work Wednesday morning, which morphed into a story of heroism on social media that afternoon.
“Here are the women — Senate aides — who had the presence of mind and courage to transport and keep safe the electoral votes before fleeing the Senate,” said @RaeMargaret61, a Twitter user whose posting garnered more than 360,000 likes by Thursday evening. “There will always be villains. There will always be heroes.”
In an interview, Leach recounted her experience on Wednesday.
“The scariest part of all of this was just how quickly things escalated, and it went from one minute kind of looking out the window and laughing at like ‘look at the crazy people outside’ to all of a sudden we’re locked in the chamber and people are banging on the door,” she said.
“We can hear them outside. We’re able to pull up social media and see literal pictures of people on the other side of the wall. We had Confederate flags in the back hallway, we had dozens and dozens of people pouring in through the Rotunda and so, you know, to see those images and know that kind of the only thing that stuck between us and them was the wall of the Senate chamber. It was an intimidating and, in a lot of ways, utterly terrifying moment.”
Her terror was compounded when Leach realized that she had left her phone in the chamber. She soon found a way to reach her family and reassure them that she was secure. Her father — Daylin Leach, a Democrat who served for years in both chambers of the Pennsylvania state legislature — could not contain his pride, posting the viral photo on his Twitter feed.
Brennan Leach said the experience cast the contributions that elected officials make for their constituents in a new light for her.
“It’s moments like this where you’re really kind of in the thick of the work that these people do and are forced to recognize how much they really put themselves at risk, how much they give for the work they do,” she said.
Wednesday’s photo wasn’t the first time that Leach, who lives in suburban Philadelphia’s Montgomery County, has landed in the spotlight. In October 2016, at a televised town hall in suburban Philadelphia, Leach asked then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton about the potential damage to young women being caused by then-Republican nominee Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about women.
Clinton naturally appreciated the question, but soon Leach was in the middle of a political firestorm when she told a reporter that she had run the question by her father. Conservatives decried her as a plant, which she denied then and does now.
The elder Leach was outspoken as a lawmaker in calling out what he saw as anti-Semitism and centered his politics on “tikkun olam,” a Hebrew term meaning “repair the world” that has become a rallying cry for American liberals. (“Donald Trump is not a tikkun olam kind of guy,” he said at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia. “He’s more a destroy olam kind of guy.”)
Brennan Leach said she does not like to mix her religion with her politics, but also said that as she worked and studied politics, her Jewishness is “on my mind.” She was proud to meet Jewish senators, she said.
“It’s great to see Jewish leaders in the Senate,” Leach said. (Chuck Schumer of New York is poised to become majority leader, the most senior position ever held by a Jewish person in U.S. government.)
Leach said she would not count out a career as an elected politician, but her sights were set elsewhere.
“My dream job is White House press secretary,” she said, explaining that it combines both her academic disciplines, political science and communications, and also offers a kind of political might on its own. Wednesday’s riot, which came after Trump told his supporters to move to the Capitol, made that painfully clear.
“Being press secretary” Leach said, “is the ultimate liaison between the president, who’s obviously extremely consequential in their message, and the rest of the world, the press and public.”