You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby
It’s hard to imagine today, but as recently as 20 years ago, women were an oddity in the Washington lobbying business.
“People would say, ‘Isn’t that unusual?’” recalled Jeanne Campbell, president and chief executive of the lobbying firm Campbell-Crane and Associates. Campbell remembers all too well when it was common for male lobbyists or senior Hill aides to refer to women as “honey” or “cutie.”
“Guys now see women on more equal terms,” she said.
Indeed, today, women routinely head powerful trade associations, snare top jobs in D.C. offices of major corporations or run their own consulting firms. They have multiple networking groups that have generated an alternative to the “good ol’ boys” network.
Of course, with women no longer unusual in the lobbying profession, Campbell said, “they’ll kick you in the teeth just like they’ll kick guys in the teeth.”
Gloria Dittus, who runs the consulting firm Dittus Communications, got her start in D.C. the way many now-prominent women once did: answering the phones.
“When I got into working in public affairs, it used to be that there was only one seat for a woman at the table,” she said. “It was very competitive at the table [to determine] which woman was going to get the seat. What has changed now — what I love to see — is all those women in their 20s and 30s, they don’t have to fight for one seat at the table.”
Peggy Tighe, a top lobbyist for the American Medical Association, is the president of Women in Government Relations, a group that has been around for the past three decades. It started, among other reasons, because a now-defunct networking group for lobbyists banned women from joining.
“So the women got together and said, ‘Who needs an ol’ boys club,’” Tighe said. And Women in Government Relations took the high ground: It has always allowed male members.
Liz Robbins was one of the first women to set up her own lobby shop, founding one in 1977. Over the years, Robbins has employed and mentored other women, including Hilary Rosen, who went on to become president of the Recording Industry Association of America — one of the highest-profile and top-paying trade association jobs.
Robbins said she didn’t plan to start her own business or to be a pioneer in the lobbying sector. After working on Capitol Hill, she returned to New York to work for the city government.
“They went broke and sent me back to Washington to do some lobbying,” she said. “And so a lot of broke places started calling me up.” She worked it out so she could represent both New York and Michigan.
“I didn’t think I was opening a firm, I thought I was taking two jobs. Then San Francisco went broke, and I went to work for Mayor [Dianne] Feinstein,” she said. “Basically they paid me when they could.” Eventually the corporate clients followed, some of them in the red too.
Robbins said one of the true pioneers for women in lobbying — one who started her advocacy career 50 years ago — is Evelyn Dubrow, who turned 94 in May. Dubrow, now retired, lives in Southeast D.C. and declined to be interviewed for this article.
In 2001, she told the lobbying trade publication Influence that at 90 years old, she was still actively lobbying for the garment workers union UNITE!, which she joined in 1956.
“I used to raise hell with the corporate guys. ‘Why don’t you hire more women lobbyists?’ It was a moral thing with me,” she told Influence. “When they were hired, I’d say, ‘Don’t wear high heels, and don’t get involved with the guys.’ ”
Women now hold the top slot in General Electric’s D.C. office (Nancy Dorn, a former congressional liaison for Vice President Cheney); head the influential trade group America’s Health Insurance Plans (Karen Ignagni); and the Washington office of FedEx (Gina Adams).
“Our issues are diverse, and our employee base is definitely diverse,” Adams said. “And we strive to make sure that we reflect our employee base.”
In the more than 20 years since Anne Wexler started her firm, now called Wexler and Walker Public Policy Associates, she said she has seen a huge increase in the number of women who, like Dorn and Adams, head corporate offices in Washington. [IMGCAP(1)]
“I think women have brought a lot of class and talent to the profession,” she said.
Connie Tipton, president of the International Dairy Foods Association, worked in fundraising for nonprofits before she “fell in the door” at the Milk and Ice Cream Association, a predecessor of IDFA.
“There have always been a certain number of boys-only events: hunting, fishing, etc.,” she said. “Now, there are girls-only events like spa days. That certainly didn’t exist before.”
Juanita Duggan, chief executive of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, said she never gave much thought to being a woman lobbyist. “I just always thought it was better to keep my head down and work really hard,” she said.
But, she added, “When I was younger I was one of the only people who had small children. And I was always worried that if I didn’t make it look easy, it was going to be a bad precedent.”
Jennifer Dunn, a former Republican Congresswoman from Washington state who is now a lobbyist, said that when she first came to Congress in 1993, she found that female lobbyists, including Duggan, stood out.
“They just have a different style than the men, and I think it’s very effective,” Dunn said. “One group of women lobbyists put together spa fundraisers. It just was wonderful, it was so relaxing. We got to spend an hour and a half, talk to people who were your friends, supporting your re-election.”
Judith Zink, a lobbyist at McBee Strategic Consulting, is a founding member of a women’s networking group called Cocktails and Connections, whose functions typically draw about 70 women.
“We do smaller events where we focus on senior women on the Hill and in the administration,” Zink said. “We have a great database that can track all the senior women on the Hill and in the administration. ”
Zink said that in the 14 years as a defense lobbyist, she has seen a steady increase of women in her specialty. Many of the Defense-related committees on Capitol Hill now include significant numbers of female staffers, which has, over time, increased the number of women in defense lobbying.
Anne Urban, a lobbyist with Venn Strategies, said that on Capitol Hill, “there used to be so much more talk about what an anomaly it was” to have senior women staffers. “Now, I just think it’s much more a fabric of the Hill.”
Stephanie Silverman and Urban are partners in Venn, a firm that’s predominantly female. Silverman said that when she set up the firm in 2001, she didn’t purposefully exclude men. “It just happened that way,” she said.
As for role models, Silverman said that her mother, a lobbyist at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, gave her the first taste of advocacy at an early age.
In the 1970s, Silverman said, “I was at Metro stations passing out information to help save Amtrak,” she recalled. “I was cheap labor, and it was interesting.”
Urban added that people on the Hill “do joke about the chick firm,” but said that “it’s to our benefit — it’s unique, something to talk about.”
Barbara Comstock, a Republican lobbyist, and Heather Podesta, a Democratic lobbyist, both work at the firm Blank Rome. Though they come from different sides of the aisle, the two women recently started an annual women-only bipartisan holiday party.
“Bo Derek came this year,” Comstock said of the actress and Republican activist.
Podesta, who is married to lobbyist Tony Podesta of the firm PodestaMattoon, said that in addition to such networking events, she finds fundraising “an incredibly powerful tool for women lobbyists.”
“Fundraising allows for [one] to become a Member lobbyist, as opposed to a staffer lobbyist,” she said. “It’s a lot better when a Member or Senator sees you and gives you a big hug and kiss and says, ‘Heather, how are you?’”
Heather Podesta said that fundraising has helped her distinguish herself, especially since she is relatively new to the business. “It’s a shortcut of sorts,” she said.
This year, for example, Podesta, a counsel to the late Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.), said she has raised $450,000 along with her husband, plus another $215,000 on her own.
Linda Daschle, a former deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and wife of one-time Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said that since the early 1980s when she first started working with Congress, she has noticed no professional distinctions between men and women.
When it comes to fundraising, though, Daschle said within the past seven years, Members and presidential candidates have “discovered that women have the ability to raise money.” And the requests have poured in.
Former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), the top executive of the Ketchum-owned lobbying firm the Washington Group, said that while more women now work in all kinds of Washington jobs, “this is still a male-dominated town.”
Still, she said, things have changed. “The contacts of the good ol’ boys network are less important than information,” she said.
Marissa Mitrovich, who is in her mid-20s and serves as a director of government affairs at the Washington Group, has worked with Molinari for four years.
“She is an inspiration to work for and watch,” Mitrovich said. “She always invites the younger women in the firm to participate in meetings and to sit in on strategy sessions.”
Former Rep. Barbara Kennelly (D-Conn.) recalled that when she was first elected to Congress in 1982, there were about 25 elected women in the Capitol.
“I kind of think the man-woman thing in Washington is over,” said Kennelly, who now serves as president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “Some of that ‘poor me’ — you don’t hear that anymore. I think the barriers are down.”