Strom's Right-Hand Man
Trey Branham gets a senator’s job done
Published in 2008 Texas Rising Stars magazine
on March 17, 2008
Updated on September 3, 2015
While his friends spent their senior year spring break at beaches and at bars, Charles “Trey” Branham knocked on doors on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Interested in politics, he wanted to work in the belly of the beast.
A family friend arranged an interview with Sen. Strom Thurmond, who had an opening on his staff. Thurmond only hired people from South Carolina, and Branham’s Hilton Head roots helped land him the job. “I was hired on a trial period,” Branham says. “Six weeks and my salary was $12,000.”
Branham worked in constituency services, which was a high priority for Thurmond. While most senators emphasize legislation, Thurmond emphasized helping the people of South Carolina deal with the federal government. Branham was a natural at the job and it helped hone many of the skills he uses today as a trial lawyer at the Law Offices of Charles Branham in Dallas. He dealt with a variety of people, listened to their problems, found solutions and advocated on their behalf to federal bureaucrats.
“One thing you learn about talking with constituents is there are all kinds of people and problems,” says Branham, 37. “Sometimes the requests seemed simple, like finding out why a Social Security check never arrived. But the solution could be maddening, like finding a needle in a haystack.” Sometimes Branham would get on the phone and work his magic, but sometimes he had to go straight to the top. “If I couldn’t get an answer I would walk in and tell Senator Thurmond,” Branham says. “He would pick up the phone and call a secretary and find out where the Social Security check was. When I was there, the senator was an advocate for you—no matter who you were.”
After his trial period, Branham’s salary bumped up to $24,000. His day was grueling, often starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 8 p.m. But Branham says he and his friends “lived like kings.” Thurmond tried to make Washington fun, often taking his staff to dinners and receptions. Branham sometimes drove the senator home at night.
Claudia Diaz de la Portilla, who worked as a legislative assistant to Thurmond at the same time, says Branham was one of the senator’s favorites. “He always said of Trey, ‘That’s my boy,’” Diaz de la Portilla says. “The senator recognized Trey’s capabilities very early.”
Thurmond went home most weekends and at Monday morning staff meetings, Diaz de la Portilla says he pulled cocktail napkins and scraps of paper out of his pockets with notes about constituents. Every day the office received letters and phone calls from people seeking help. The staff divvied them and went to work. “Trey had the ability to put a face with a name,” Diaz de la Portilla says. “He had a real talent of taking a person’s issue and making it real to the people who could solve it.”
In 1994, after two years working for Thurmond, Branham left to join a lobbying firm for a few years. “In Washington, there are folks with a law degree and folks without a law degree,” Branham says. “Those without a law degree hit a glass ceiling.”
So Branham determined he would be one of those who had a law degree. He returned home to attend the University of South Carolina School of Law, where he graduated cum laude in 1999. His second summer, he landed a clerkship with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld in Dallas. Shortly after, he secured a clerkship with Federal District Judge Joe Kendall.
Terry Hart, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani, met Branham around this time. Hart was then a partner at Akin Gump and friends with Kendall. He knew right away that Branham possessed a rare combination: smart, with an outgoing, genuine personality.
“Judge Kendall hired the cream of the cream,” Hart says. “He is not going to hire someone who may have graduated first at Harvard but needs a personality transplant. He will hire someone who is smart, but who can deal with people.”
After his clerkship, Branham worked at Akin Gump as a corporate lawyer. But the courtroom beckoned and he joined Waters & Kraus to be a trial lawyer. Later, he joined Simon & Eddins, where he worked on multimillion-dollar toxic tort cases across the country, much as he now does in his own law office.
Branham strongly believes in his clients. “I guess it goes back to what I learned from the senator,” Branham says. “Everyone deserves equal representation no matter who they are or aren’t.”
As hard as he works (he traveled about 200 days last year), Branham also insists on having fun. He and his wife, Renee Skinner, a lawyer with Fish and Richardson in Dallas, are both scuba divers. In 2006, they bought land on Utila, an island in Honduras that sits at the southern end of the largest barrier reef system in the Western Hemisphere. They are building a home there, and he tracks their progress on a blog at buildingourplaceinthesun.blogspot.com/
“Here, my phone rings all the time,” Branham says. “Utila is very remote. My phone doesn’t work there.”
I Remember Strom
Many people remember Sen. Strom Thurmond for being the longest-serving senator in the Senate, or for his filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the longest filibuster on record at 24 hours and 18 minutes. But there is so much more to remember about the man.
He was a farmer, an English teacher (frequently pulling out his red pen to mark up letters and correspondence I wrote), and a basketball coach. He was a judge and a World War II veteran, landing with the 82nd Airborne on D-Day and ultimately retiring with the rank of Major General. He led the Senate in hiring minority staff and supported extending the Voting Rights Act as well as the establishment of the Martin Luther King national holiday.
The senator believed strongly in standing up for what he believed, rightly or wrongly. Although he never formally admitted regret for his filibuster, he was willing to change, which is why the people of South Carolina re-elected him for more than 49 years.
His favorite part of the day was constituent visits. He loved meeting South Carolina residents in his large office where the walls were covered with plaques and photos, including a personally autographed photo from Franklin D. Roosevelt.
One of my favorite stories about him came from one of his many campaign opponents. The candidate didn’t understand why his campaign manager had him make a campaign stop at a rural African Methodist Episcopal Church to stump for votes. Many people, including this candidate, didn’t consider those parishioners to be Sen. Thurmond’s constituency. The opponent’s campaign manager said that every member of that church either had a letter from the senator, knew someone who worked for the senator or the senator had done a favor for him or her. And he was right. The senator was an advocate for the people of South Carolina—no matter who they were.