Meet the ‘Gracious’ Lobbyists

Posted February 20, 2004 at 5:26pm

By 9:30 a.m. on a recent Thursday, the morning coffee rush in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Cafeteria was beginning to thin. But in one corner of the room, a klatch of female lobbyists was just getting revved up.

While the three dozen or so participants were high on passion, it quickly became clear this was hardly your typical meeting of K Street powerbrokers.

For one thing, there was the question of age. Some, such as 20-year-old Sara Guderyahn, cannot yet legally drink. Sixty-three-year-old retired business owner Suzanne Cook, meanwhile, is a grandmother several times over.

“We consider ourselves the gracious lobbyists,” said Cook. “We don’t have a lot of money to pay into their campaign accounts to get our point across.”

Since 1972, each Thursday that Congress is in session — with the exception of a brief hiatus in the early 1980s — the American Association of University Women’s Lobby Corps has dispatched women of all ages, talking points in hand, to Congressional offices considered convincible on a given issue.

Much progress has been made since the all-volunteer Lobby Corps first headed to the Hill at the height of the legislative battle over Title IX. But members say their policy focus — often dealing with education, pay and health equity concerns — typically revolves around waging perennial battles.

“We spend a lot of time fighting for rights we already have,” said Peggy Stotz, 65, who has been with Lobby Corps for nearly two decades.

Their focus during the visit earlier this month was the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill currently pending in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The legislation is aimed at closing the so-called “wage gap” between men and women’s salaries.

But before they started buttonholing lawmakers’ aides, a mini-firestorm broke out among the lobbyists as they sipped coffee. AAUW’s Amy Buck asserted that on average a man with a bachelor’s degree will earn $10,000 more per year than a woman with the same education.

“Not to be difficult,” 27-year-old George Washington University graduate student Meredith DiMola interjected, “but there’s a difference between a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a bachelor’s in women’s studies.”

DiMola wanted to know whether the statistics addressed that discrepancy. “We get in trouble when we misuse statistics,” cautioned another woman.

After an extended back and forth, Stotz advised the group not to get “bogged down with numbers and percentages.”

“The big issue is we make less,” she said. “Women in Utah won’t have equal pay until 2050.”

And on that sobering note, the women broke out in pairs as Buck urged them “to go forth and lobby.”

It was the inaugural lobbying effort for Guderyahn, an American University sophomore who admitted to being just a wee bit “nervous” as she hit the hallways with a canary yellow backpack stuffed with books for her 12:30 p.m. Behavior Principles class.

The first stop for Guderyahn and Stotz was showing up unannounced at Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s (D-N.J.) third-floor Hart Senate Office Building digs, where a male receptionist wanted to know if they had arrived to discuss education issues.

No, said Stotz, but “at least you know who we are.”

Legislative Assistant Rudy Brioché couldn’t see the lobbyists, so Stotz and Guderyahn fought their way through a crowd of Presidential Classroom students and scribble a note to the staffer about the importance of supporting pay equity.

“About 50 to 60 percent [of staffers] on the Senate side, they are tied up or busy,” said Stotz, noting that they didn’t have an appointment and that typically aides to lawmakers in the world’s most exclusive club are “not as available” as those on the House side.

Stotz and Guderyahn left their brief missive and Garden State-specific wage-gap data with the receptionist and proceeded to Sen. Pete Domenici’s (R-N.M.) office, which turned out to be vacant. A note tacked to the door indicated that Domenici had been temporarily relocated to the Senate Russell Office Building Courtyard.

Unfazed, the veteran Stotz suggested they head to the Dirksen office of Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah, the state where — according to AFL-CIO data — equal pay is nearly half a century away.

In the elevator, Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee Minority Special Counsel Stephen Kroll spotted the green plastic AAUW Lobby Corps pins.

“What does that mean?” he asked, leaning in.

“We lobby on education and civil rights,” said Stotz, explaining the group’s role in the recent effort to preserve Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and other activities like sports.

“Pretty good issues,” said Kroll. “I have a daughter. … Title IX is great.”

Stotz and Guderyahn continued on to the office of Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.), where they were told once again that the necessary aide was otherwise preoccupied before traipsing off to Russell for another attempt to find Domenici.

Down on the third floor of Dirksen, Cook and 24-year-old George Washington University public policy graduate student Erin Hiemstra, an aspiring lobbyist, were not having much better luck.

At the entrance to Sen. Craig Thomas’ (R-Wyo.) office they stopped to assess the situation.

“Wyoming is actually dead last in pay equity for women,” Hiemstra lamented.

“I guess the chart on the back will tell them that,” Cook said.

And for now, that chart would have to suffice, as again the point person on labor issues was otherwise engaged.

“It’s been a crazy day,” offered an apologetic young Thomas staffer.

As they headed to Russell’s basement rotunda, where the lobbyists reconvened to take stock of the morning’s accomplishments, Cook told Hiemstra: “Today it will be zero over zero.”

The others, however, had met with better odds in securing an audience with a Senate staffer.

Three out of six, called out one woman. Four out of five, said another.

As for the Domenici quest, Stotz claimed some success on that front.

“We didn’t see anybody,” she said. “But we successfully found the room.”