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Women of the Year: Vanessa Waldref working to make sure her appointment as female U.S. attorney won’t be last

Vanessa Waldref is quick to point out that although hers will be the first portrait of a woman to hang among the men who have led the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern Washington, she had a lot of role models along the way.

“I’ve had mentors who were incredible, both men and women,” said Waldref from her office in the Thomas S. Foley U.S. Courthouse earlier this month, specifically mentioning Pamela DeRusha, the former civil chief of the office, and Stephanie Lister, who was nationally recognized for her work on child exploitation cases while in Eastern Washington. “But really being able to see myself as a leader has been through seeing someone who looks like me achieve amazing things in their roles.”

Waldref, 41, a Gonzaga Prep graduate and former United States assistant attorney in the office, was sworn in to lead it Oct. 7 after nomination and confirmation in the U.S. Senate. She took the oath with four former U.S. attorneys for the office, sister and former City Councilwoman Amber Waldref as well as the rest of her family and several members of the legal community, including former coworkers who are the workhorses of an office she’ll manage.

“For the first time in recent memory, the United States attorney, appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, is both someone who grew up in this community and and has deep roots in the community, and has served as an assistant U.S. attorney for years,” said Dave Herzog, one of 28 assistant United States attorneys in the office split between both Yakima and Spokane.

At her swearing-in, former U.S. Attorney Michael Ormsby said hiring good people was one of the important jobs of the office. He said when the office hired Waldref in 2013, they “knocked it out of the park.”

During those seven years, Waldref took charge of the office’s intern program. That included recruiting Gonzaga University School of Law student Emily Geddes, who just graduated in May and has taken a job at a local law firm.

“She really has created an environment around herself where she inspires you to learn and be better, and she encourages you to do that,” Geddes said. “But she gives you the tools to do that as well.”

That also will be the goal in leading the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Waldref said. Attorneys working there have deep experience, specifically in the types of violent crime, illicit opioid and fraud cases that have continually cropped up in the region. Waldref also mentioned the importance of protecting federal lands, as well as enforcing clean water and air standards that were her priority during a year working in the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resource Division.

She’s been working with the Justice Department for the past year, but did not have to move to the East Coast because of the remote policies employed by the federal government during the pandemic. Waldref still had to adapt to a new job, all while the pandemic began to take hold for her two children in sixth and second grade.

“Last spring was the most challenging time,” she said. “Transitioning to a new job, homeschooling, or trying to teach from home – people who do homeschooling do a better job than I would do – I was just trying to keep everything afloat.”

Geddes took a class called “Conflict of Law” from Waldref and teacher Richard Barker on Zoom this spring.

“It’s not maybe the most exciting field of law,” Geddes conceded. “But the two of them were really able to keep the class interesting, and keep the class engaged.”

In her public comments after being sworn in, Waldref acknowledged the “big shoes” she’d be filling by stepping into the office, but also noted it’s the first time those shoes would be filled by someone in high heels. While meant as a lighthearted comment, Waldref said she takes the role of a potential role model seriously.

“What’s so important to me is that I now have the privilege to continue to strive for representative leadership in this legal community and the law enforcement community that reflects the population of the district we serve,” she said. “Representation is critical in terms of people seeing themselves as leaders and part of the law enforcement community, and that’s not just what other people do.”

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