As policy adviser and counsel for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Brandi Wilson White has built strong working bonds throughout the Senate while coordinating the most pressing policy issues. A personal tragedy showed just how strong those ties could be.

White, 34, returned to her native Tennessee in March for the funeral of Tanner Hixson, her 22-year-old cousin who was more like a brother to her, and who died three hours after ingesting at a party a synthetic drug called 2C-I that was legal at the time.

“When I came back and I sat at my desk, I said, ‘I really want to do something about this,” White said. “I started telling Tanner’s story.”

White usually is the one reaching out to all the Republican Senate offices to find out their top priorities on upcoming bills, and integrating those ideas into the Republican floor strategy. As part of the minority office this year, she said, that meant playing a lot of defense.

But on the issue regarding her cousin, White took to the offensive. She said she spoke with dozens of people, like those she had come to know through work at the U.S. Department of Justice as a George W. Bush appointee on legal policy. She also spoke to members of Congress, including Senator Robert Portman (R-Ohio), and contacts at the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Portman had already been working on an amendment to a Food and Drug Administration bill that would ban 2C-I and other substances, such as synthetic marijuana, stimulants and hallucinogens. And when Portman took to the floor in June, the senator made sure to speak about Hixson. “I appreciate the fact that her family was willing to share that story so that other young people will not make that same mistake,” Portman said on the floor. The bill passed and is now law.

White started on the Hill as counsel for then-Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), where she worked on judicial nominations, including two for the U.S. Supreme Court, until he retired in 2006. She then went to work on legal policy at the Department of Justice, but found she missed the camaraderie she found at the Capitol.

“The bonds you form with these people, it’s special,” White said. “The nature of this place, it’s exciting. When I leave every day, in some very small way I’m making some difference to improve the country.” — Todd Ruger