WASHINGTON — Don Fowler has taught thousands of aspiring politicos in South Carolina over the decades. Some have gone on to major roles in the profession, from governors to lawmakers to chiefs of staff.
But only once can Fowler, a former chairman of both the Democratic National Committee and the S.C. Democratic Party, remember having to make sure he was facing one particular direction at all times so a student could read his lips.
That student, Michael Tecklenburg, has since risen to the highest levels of national politics, working at various points in the White House, the Justice Department, as a Washington-based aide for former S.C. Gov. Jim Hodges and, for the past 15 years, as a top legal and policy adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
And the Charleston native has done it all despite being born profoundly deaf.
"I don't really overcome my deafness, I more or less adapt to it," Tecklenburg said during a recent interview in his fourth floor office at the Capitol.
"Even today, I'm still not able to get 100 percent of a discussion, but the goal is to make sure I get enough of it to put the pieces together so that I'm able to function in the workplace."
Ever modest, the brother of Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg does far more than just function.
As a policy liaison for Pelosi on judicial and oversight issues, he advises the speaker on some of the thorniest topics in politics today, including impeachment debates and the Russia investigation. He provides legal counsel for cases that involve the House.
He helped craft the Democrats' top legislative priority this year to strengthen ethics and campaign finance laws. During the recent government shutdown, he coordinated with groups including the FBI Agents Association to relay information about the impact of the funding lapse. He will likely assist with Democrats' legal response to President Donald Trump's declaration of a national emergency on the southern border.
"He's the smartest guy in the world," Fowler said of his former student. "He made an 'A,' obviously."
Born in Charleston in 1963 as the youngest of five brothers, Michael moved with the family to Orangeburg. He received early auditory and speech therapy at S.C. State University, where Dr. Harold Powell started the program that his family credits with much of his early success.
It was at S.C. State that Tecklenburg first learned to read lips, intensely concentrating on the tiniest of movements. Due to the family's concerns about the state of deaf education elsewhere in South Carolina at the time, he went to schools in St. Louis for much of the rest of his early years until college.
Tecklenburg's love of politics — and his belief that it could be used as a vehicle for the public good — came from his family. His father, Henry, spent years as the chairman of the S.C. Ports Authority and had deep connections in Democratic politics. His mother, Esther, served on Charleston City Council, and a young Michael helped her campaign for the job.
When Michael was about 10, the family was at an event with former Gov. Dick Riley where John Tecklenburg remembers his brother, wearing a conspicuously large hearing aid, ambling straight up to Riley and asking bluntly, "How's government, Mr. Governor?"
"His inquisitiveness was always there and his sense of humor, as well," the mayor said of his brother. "When he started reading, he was like a sponge, and his knowledge of history and law naturally led to a keen interest in politics. "
By the time he was a freshman at the University of South Carolina’s honors college, where he would lead the Young Democrats club, Tecklenburg’s academic success was already so remarkable that SCETV produced a short documentary about him and followed up a few years later when he became the first deaf student in the history of Columbia University law school.
The series featured lavish praise from U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, the longtime South Carolina Democrat who was a close friend of Tecklenburg's father and gave Michael one of his first political experiences as an intern.
"If I was going to choose for a large law firm someone who could prepare my briefs and do the research and guide my thinking, I’d rather have Michael Tecklenburg than any person I know," Hollings said. "He’s got that kind of sensitivity and feel and logic. He’s had to develop it."
Rise in Washington
Known affectionately around Pelosi's office as "Teck," colleagues describe him as a vital contributor to some of their most vexing debates — and a constant source of good humor in stressful times.
"I've found him to be incredibly strategic and thoughtful," said Ashley Etienne, a senior adviser and communications director for Pelosi. "He has the ability to see around the corner in a way that the average political staffer, even those who have been on the Hill for decades, does not."
When Pelosi chose U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, to lead a Democratic faith working group designed to improve the party's standing among religious voters following the 2004 elections, she lent Tecklenburg to him as legal counsel.
Clyburn thought so highly of Tecklenburg, who he calls "a tremendous ambassador for the state," that he and now-former U.S. Rep. John Spratt later recommended him to President Barack Obama for a potential federal judgeship on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
"Michael was just a joy to work around," Clyburn said. "It's one thing to graduate college being deaf or mute, but then go to Columbia law school and come to Washington and hold the kind of positions he holds — you may wonder about that, but when you work with him as I have, you don't wonder anymore. He is totally capable."
A committed champion for those who face the same hurdles he did, Tecklenburg spent three years with the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in the early 2000s and still stays in touch with advocates.
"I'm determined to demonstrate that I can do a job as well as anyone else," Tecklenburg said. "I try to meet high standards in my work, and I work for a speaker who also expects high standards and a high level of professionalism from all of her staff."
Tecklenburg is quick to praise his colleagues and the speaker for accommodating him.
When he first moved into his office, staff had to install a flashing light for the fire alarm because he couldn't hear it. His office phone features a real-time captioning device so he can use it as needed, though he tends to rely mostly on email.
The office also features mementos from home. A painting of Charleston's famous Four Corners of the Law sits atop his bookshelf. His father had planned to hang the picture in his Washington office when he was chosen as an undersecretary of commerce, but he passed away on the day he was going to accept the appointment.
In 2015, Tecklenburg took a leave of absence to help out with his brother's successful campaign for mayor. The mayor still gets choked up thinking about how the family feared, before Michael's diagnosis as deaf, that he must have had some other form of learning disability.
"As it turned out, once he had the tools of speaking and reading, it was clear that in fact he was brilliant," the mayor said. "It was a huge challenge and hurdle for him personally and for our family, but it turns out that he didn't have a disability at all in a way. It was actually an incredible opportunity for him to learn and to shine."