By Sarah Plummer
President Obama selected a Hinton native Monday as his budget director in the midst of a partisan battle over government spending.
But Sylvia Mathews Burwell isn’t unfamiliar with the White House. As a young woman, she grew up riding whitewater on West Virginia’s Gauley River, but she rode her political wherewithal and fiduciary knowledge to become deputy chief of staff under Bill Clinton’s presidency and chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
Burwell worked in Bill Clinton’s campaign and was part of his economic transition team into office. As one of Clinton’s economic gurus, she played a part in the former Democratic president’s legacy to create a strong economy and a path to debt reduction.
A White House official credited Burwell with being a principal architect of a series of budget plans in the 1990s that led to a budget surplus.
Speaking at a White House nomination ceremony Monday, Obama said Burwell not only knows how “to make the numbers add up” but also how to ignite middle-class economic growth.
He said Burwell and her team would face particular challenges as the so-called sequester cuts take hold, but said he was confident they would “do everything in their power to blunt the impact of these cuts on businesses and middle-class families.”
“Sylvia knows her way around a budget,” Obama said. “But as granddaughter of Greek immigrants, she also understands that our goal when we put together a budget is not just to make the numbers add up. Our goal is also to reignite the true engine of economic growth, and that is a strong growing middle class, to offer ladders of opportunity for anybody willing to climb them.”
Burwell is a graduate of Harvard and Oxford and a Rhodes scholar, and she has most recently served as president of the Wal-Mart Foundation. Prior to that she led the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program.
Wal-Mart president Mike Duke called Burwell a strong leader with a “clear vision for making big things happen.”
“She understands business and the role that business, government and civil society must play to build a strong economy that provides opportunity and strengthens communities across the country,” Duke said in a statement.
If her nomination is approved by the Senate, she will become the second woman to hold the post of the nation’s budget chief.
She is the daughter of retired optometrist William Mathews and former Hinton Mayor Cleo Mathews.
In 2000, Burwell told The Register-Herald that her immigrant grandparents taught her courage. They became citizens and emphasized the importance of voting and participating in democracy.
Her mother, in a recent story when Burwell’s name was first mentioned for the top budget post, said seeing her daughter in the running for White House budget director is a testament to the American Dream.
Cleo Mathews’ parents were Greek immigrants who came to America to provide a better life for their children. She and her siblings were the first generation of her family to go to college.
Mathews said her daughter’s interest in politics began at a very young age.
When she was in grade school, she helped campaign for her best friend’s father, who was running for Summers County commissioner.
At 11, she and her friends volunteered to help out with Jay Rockefeller’s first gubernatorial campaign.
“They were out campaigning for Jay — they were just little kids,” Mathews said.
Neither Burwell nor her mother could be reached for comment Monday.
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Burwell and her husband Stephen have two children.
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