Clyde Williams and Mona Sutphen are the epitome of a power couple. The two met when they were both working in the Clinton Administration and both went on to enjoy prominent roles in the Obama Administration, with Mona serving as the country’s first African American female deputy chief of staff for policy and Clyde serving as the political director for the Democratic National Committee.
Though the duo now lives in New York City, they haven’t given up on politics just yet. Mona is now the managing director of the Swiss bank UBS AG, covering geopolitical risk and macro-policy trends, while Clyde is running for Congress in New York’s newly-formed District 13 against 41-year-incumbent Congressman Charlie Rangel.
But with all the commotion that comes along with heading an international bank and going into campaign season crunch-time — the primary vote for Clyde is less than two months away on June 26 — the playful and affectionate couple, who will celebrate eleven years of marriage this year, still find time to dote on their incredibly well-behaved children: seven-year-old daughter Sydney and four-year-old son Davis.
In a sit-down interview with EBONY in their classic Harlem home, Clyde and Mona shared their love story and a peek inside their family life.
EBONY: You first met at The White House while literally planning peace in the Middle East. For policy wonks and politicos, it doesn’t get any more romantic than that! Describe that first meeting.
CLYDE WILLIAMS: I can answer that one. We were in The Situation Room planning the Israeli-Palestinian summit and Mona’s boss, [then-National Security Advisor] Sandy Berger was sitting across the table from me and he was unhappy about something we scheduled for the summit. The meeting was well under-way when Mona walked into it and Sandy became like Charlie Brown’s teacher to me, all I heard was “wah wah wah!” And I’m like who is this woman? I had no idea who she was and I just wanted to know her.
MONA SUTPHEN: I had the same reaction. I see this guy and I thought he was attractive, but I also thought I knew all of the Black people in the White House, so I’m just wondering, “who is this guy?” We didn’t actually talk at that meeting, though. It wasn’t until two to three weeks later that we met officially at a mutual friend’s party.
CW: But I don’t want to give off the impression that we have some kind of perfect relationship.
MS: Yeah, we broke up probably six times between then and when we got married [in 2001].
EBONY: Why was that? Were your busy schedules getting in the way?
CW: No, not that at all. One of the greatest things about us both working in the same field and facing the same pressures is that we really understand each other’s lives and schedules. When you’ve got to be on call 24-7 or jumping out of bed because the President of the United States needs something done, you’ve got to be with someone who understands that. So, it wasn’t our schedules, she just told me flat out, “I’ve got enough friends.”
EBONY: I know that’s right!
CW: [Laughs] What? You’re taking her side? OK!
MS: Well, he had just gotten out of a relationship when we met and he was dealing with that and other things. And we would break-up and get back together to the point where our friends wouldn’t even pay us any attention anymore. We’d say, “We broke up,” and they’d say, “Yeah, sure.” But we got married really quickly after we got engaged. We basically eloped, had only ten guests at our wedding and then had a big party for all of our friends later.
EBONY: So Clyde, when was the moment that you knew Mona was the one and you didn’t want to be just one of her friends anymore?
CW: There was never a time when I didn’t want to be with her. I’ve always felt like there was something different about Mona. She’s the smartest woman I’ve ever dated and she has my complete best interests at heart. She has always been an encouraging force in my life and anything I want to do, she’s like “You can do this; we can make this work.” For so long, my mom was that person for me until she died, and having a partner who believes in you makes a profound difference. I have someone who has a vested interest in me and she makes me feel like I have no limitations. Again, I don’t want to give off the impression that we have a perfect relationship in any way, but it’s perfect for us.
MS: Absolutely. With us, it’s like you have this safety net there. Because I have him there supporting me, even if I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, I still have confidence that I can do it because I know he’s in my corner. Most good relationships are built on mutual trust and respect. Because we trust each other, we can be vulnerable with each other. And since we are in similar fields, we can give each other advice and support through the struggles we’re facing because we have an awareness of all of the pressures that the other is under.
EBONY: Speaking of pressure and working in similar fields, you were a house divided during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary season with Mona working for then-Senator Obama and Clyde working for then-Senator Hillary Clinton. That was a very contentious time in the Democratic Party. How did you manage that at home?
CW: It wasn’t contentious for the two of us at all. It was a very easy decision for me and I’ll tell you why. I never would have had an opportunity to play a role in a national campaign if it were not for the Clintons. There’s no way that they could ask me for help and I say no. [On the campaign] when Hillary was up by 40 points, Pete Rouse [an Obama strategist] called and asked me to help out on their campaign. Barack said, “Hillary’s great, but I’m going to win.” It’s not that I didn’t believe in him and I was always proud of the President. But when my mother died, Hillary Clinton was the second person to call me and her chief of staff Maggie Williams – who’s also a donor to my congressional campaign – was just phenomenal to me. I had to help her.
MS: My calculus was very simple too. Clyde was very supportive of my decision, though some of my colleagues were very surprised. But I just figured Obama didn’t have a whole network behind him like Hillary had and I just wanted to be on his team. I knew he’d be a really good president.
But at the house, we had a zone of silence. We heard each other’s campaign strategy, but we would not let it leave the house, and we didn’t let it get between us.
CW: Never. But there’s no way you can have someone who looks like you and goes on to become the President of the United States and not be proud of him. And I’ve enjoyed working for him [as the former national political director of the Democratic National Committee] and getting to know him on some level.
Looking back, I would’ve never thought that this would be my life. I grew up in southeast D.C. and I know I’ve been able to get where I am not just because of hard work, but also because people took an interest in me and people gave me an opportunity and I try to honor that. And increasing access to more opportunities for others is what I want to do for this community [in New York’s 13th congressional district] as well. I’m a product of that mindset. I know it works.
EBONY: What is it about this community that made you all want to stay here? Originally, Clyde, you came to work for President Clinton’s foundation that’s based in Harlem, but why stay and why run for Congress here?
CW: Harlem has always held this great mystique for me, from the Langston Hughes poem to the Harlem Renaissance period. The history and the culture definitely brought us to Harlem and the people made us stay. We made a conscious decision to live here and raise our family here.
I’ve looked around this community and you see change but also decades of unemployment and educational achievement gaps and it makes you think, “Is there a better way?” And when I used to come home and complain about some of the things I’d see in our community, Mona would say, “Why don’t you run [for office] and do something about it?”
You both continue to have awesome careers and pursue individual excellence and individual identities even while maintaining a strong family structure and partnership. How do you manage that?
MS: One thing we do have to manage is who is doing what when. I think it’s very difficult for both of us to go 100 miles an hour and still be able to maintain such a strong family structure. We really take turns based on what opportunities are presented. When I had the opportunity to be [the first Black female] deputy chief of staff for the President, Clyde was very supportive of that and knew that with the 24-7 nature of the job, he’d be taking up the slack at home and playing a different role with the kids. But I couldn’t do that while Clyde is running for Congress. That would have hurt the quality of our family life and that’s very important to us. So we try to plan around that and make the necessary sacrifices to maintain that balance based on the opportunities that arise.
CW: It’s key for us that no one’s success is more important than the other’s. Her success is my success and mine is hers. So we know we have to make whatever sacrifices necessary so that we are both fulfilled individually and have fulfilled kids who know their parents are there for them.
MS: We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of help, with family and great friends too. And we spend a lot of time together just the four of us. We spend a lot of time alone, just hanging out.
EBONY: How would you describe your parenting style?
MS: I’d say we are traditionalist. We are heavy on discipline and relatively strict and structured. But we also make sure our children feel not just physically safe but emotionally safe, like they can come to us with anything. Our motto is definitely “walk softly and carry a big stick.”
CW: And our kids have only two things that they have to do in this world. [He calls to their daughter who is eating lunch with her brother in the kitchen.] Sydney, what are the two things you have to do in life?
SYDNEY WILLIAMS: [Without hesitation, the seven-year-old says:] Learn to make the world a better place and be a good human being.
CW: And that’s honestly at the heart of all that we try to teach them.
EBONY: What do you hope your children will learn about love from your marriage?
CW: I hope they understand that you have to be respectful of each other and that there’s nothing more important than family. They are great kids, I know we are biased, but they are, and they inspire us. Everything we do is for them. I look at my wife and I have so much hope for our daughter. Because of my wife, our daughter gets to grow up in a world believing that anything she works for she can achieve. That’s really incredible.