Street Talk: Women Reach the Top in Fundraising

Posted January 22, 2010 at 6:01pm

The lobbying business is no longer the boys’ club of the smoke-filled past. But women on K Street still find themselves largely in a man’s world, especially when it comes to the top tier of the political giving scene.

[IMGCAP(1)]Very few lobbyists of either gender write enough personal checks to Members’ coffers to catapult them into the league of top donors, but the small collection of women who max out to candidates and committees, or even come close, is truly an elite clique.

Keep in mind that the max for the 2010 cycle is $115,500 in after-tax cash. That’s an awful lot of leftover money to invest, or gamble, in the risky game of partisan politics. But it does have its payoff — who do you think gets the friendly kiss on the cheek from party leaders?

And such warm greetings are currency on K Street. But it’s difficult to figure out which comes first: the kisses on the cheek from Members or the paying clients who enable a lobbyist to make the large-scale donations? For women in the influence industry, it seems an even tougher climb because of a gender pay gap that puts their salaries about 25 percent lower than their male colleagues.

Julie Domenick, a longtime Democratic lobbyist who runs her own firm, Multiple Strategies, is one of those rare female lobbyists who has already transferred more than $100,000 this election cycle to candidates and the Democratic Party. Her peers are other high-level female lobbyists, including Kelly Bingel, Sandi Stuart and Heather Podesta, who runs Heather Podesta + Partners.

“You have to get to a certain point in your life and in your career, a senior level, with a certain amount of income that can be diverted from college funds and weddings,— says Domenick, whose 22-year-old daughter’s college and wedding are saved for.

“I couldn’t have started my own business and made significant contributions if my daughter was still 10 years old with college and wedding ahead of me,— Domenick adds.

Stuart, who expects to get close to maxing out this cycle, said that as more women rise up the ranks in their lobbying firms, they will spend more on campaigns.

“You still have the heads of most firms that are men,— says Stuart, a senior partner at Clark & Weinstock who served as assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs during the Clinton administration. “You still have far more men in office, but you have a growing number of women.—

A survey of government relations salaries by the Foundation for Public Affairs found that in 2008, the median salary for a male lobbyist was $175,000, while for a woman it was $129,000.

That disparity — and the way to correct it — all starts on Capitol Hill.

As more women command top jobs — and the Congressional salaries and expertise that come with them — they will cash in on K Street on par with their male counterparts.

“Women in politics have had to find their own way because it really is more difficult for women. But it’s getting better,— Domenick says. “As these senior women leave the Hill, bolder career opportunities are available to them.—

And after they’ve found high-paying jobs and have spare money to dole out, they’ll find that there is no “green— ceiling when it comes to giving: Members will gladly take their contributions.

“It’s a pretty level playing field in the fundraising world. It’s just a matter of making the commitment that you’re going to help raise money for the people that you lobby,— says Bingel, a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti who got her start as chief of staff to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.).

Bingel, whose Arkansas drawl channels Holly Hunter, quips, “There is no glass ceiling — or I should say green ceiling — when it comes to political giving.—

Professional fundraiser Monica Notzon, a Republican who runs the Bellwether Group, is not a lobbyist but relies on women and men in the influence industry to help reel in donations.

“K Street is certainly a male-dominated field, but I think what’s great is the women that are out there have really established a name for themselves by contributing and helping candidates,— Notzon said. “Women and men bring different perspectives.—

But just what those different perspectives or styles are is hard to pin down. Like the personality-driven lobbying business itself, to be good at fundraising and money-giving requires a lot of intangibles that go beyond simply having a flourishing bank account.

“I always take it very personally and always try to approach it in a very personal way,— says Stuart, who not only gives her own donations but also organizes events and makes the ask of others. “I am understanding how tapped out people are, how many commitments they may have, so I always try to approach it in a much more sensitive way.—

When she follows up with potential donors, she does it in a personal way — no blast faxes or e-mails.

Missy Edwards, who recently opened her own firm, Missy Edwards Strategies, says women make the K Street fundraising circuit more enjoyable.

“I think it’s more fun when you have other women there,— Edwards says. “I have a lot of girlfriends who are in my profession, and sometimes this is the time we get to see each other.—

Edwards, whose father Macon Edwards is a lobbyist, says that when she was growing up, the family trade was all men. “There were no women lobbyists, so things have certainly changed,— she says. “It’s refreshing. It’s reflective of what’s going on in the overall marketplace.—

Women, though they’re not alone in this, often have family responsibilities tugging at their time and wallets. But in order to reach the top of the lobbying pack, making donations and hosting events is essential.

“It’s a significant part of the business,— says Edwards, who is not expected to max out this cycle.

For all the work, fundraising still doesn’t buy a lobbyists’ clients everything they want. It might get the meeting in the Member’s office or, even better, the donor appreciation weekend in Martha’s Vineyard with dozens of Senators, but there are no guarantees that any of it will result in persuasion.