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Street Talk: ‘Tax Chicks’ Brought Equity to K Street

Thirty years ago, a female tax lobbyist — a rarity in those days — infiltrated an informal Washington meeting of her male peers.

She stayed. But soon, word circulated that “chicks” were forbidden to hang out with those tax boys of K Street. So outraged female staffers on the Hill formed a sisterhood with lobbyists downtown called the Tax Coalition to serve as a networking lifeline for elite female wonks in the runup to the sweeping tax overhaul enacted in 1986.

On the cusp of another possible major rewrite of the nation’s tax code, the coalition of about 150 today makes up the inner circle of what has become a thriving community of women who will influence the debate on and off Capitol Hill.

“There was almost nobody, no women, involved in serious policy discussions back in 1986, so this is really a huge, huge shift,” said Elaine Kamarck, who co-chairs the corporate tax reform lobby the RATE Coalition.

Rachelle Bernstein, the original gate-crasher, worked at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce through most of the 1980s and was one of few women deep in the debate then. She said the difference is most noticeable in the number of tax vice presidents working for major companies.

“Back in the mid-’80s, in a room of 30, you might see two women. Maybe,” she said. “Now you might see almost half.”

The shift comes in part because senior female Hill aides have helped blaze a path to K Street from Congress.

Linda Goold, who said she was the first female staffer on the Senate Finance Committee in 1976 and later moved on to lobbying, put it this way: “These young ones, as we say, have no idea.”

Goold, a founding member in 1983 of the Tax Coalition, set up the Washington office for Arthur Andersen in 1979, after leaving the staff of Sen. Clifford P. Hansen, R-Wyo. Despite the slights from the men, she said, the network of women in tax had some built-in advantages.

“During the ’80s, there was an informal practice that the women who worked on Finance, Ways and Means and Joint Tax returned the calls of Tax Coalition members before they returned the calls of anyone else,” said Goold, who is now director of federal taxation with the National Association of Realtors.

Bernstein, who reluctantly told her story, said she didn’t go to the all-male meeting as a sign of feminist defiance but because she was assigned to by her boss. He was a member of the boys’ club and wanted the scoop from that day’s featured guests, senior Hill staff, but he couldn’t make the engagement.

An all-female tax clique was an idea that had been germinating around town for years, she recalled. And her catalyzing moment wasn’t the first time women in the tight-knit sector were turned away from a male operation.

Goold recalled an episode in 1978 when she worked for Hansen. He gave a luncheon address to the then-all-male Metropolitan Club, and in order for Goold to sit in on it, as was typical for a staffer, the organizers set up a separate area for her.

But it was Bernstein’s experience, which has become the stuff of K Street folklore, that sparked the tax chicks on the Hill and in the private sector into action.

Her then-boss at the chamber was David Franasiak, who works now at Williams and Jensen. He obviously had no interest in keeping Bernstein from the group, but his cohorts felt differently.

After the meeting, the tax boys — some of K Street’s most senior lobbyists — took an informal vote: No girls allowed.

“These guys were a bunch of good ol’ boys who would tell off-color jokes,” he recalled. “We did manage to get a lot of the key staffers and members [of Congress] to attend.” The ad hoc club, which met in cigar-smoke-filled rooms and whose members enjoyed pulling practical jokes on one another, eventually disbanded. “I think we all sort of grew up,” Franasiak said.

And over the years, women in tax rose in prominence, position and in downright numbers.

Dena Battle, a lobbyist at Capitol Counsel, started doing tax policy in the late 1990s for the current House Ways and Means chairman, Dave Camp, R-Mich.

“I’ve never felt like women were underrepresented in tax policy,” she said. “When I started doing tax, there were already just so many strong women in tax that were great role models. I give a lot of credit to the Tax Coalition and the women who paved that way.”

Another second-generation member, Melissa Mueller, a Hill staffer who joined the lobby outfit Capitol Tax Partners more than a year ago, said the circumstances that led the women to set up the coalition don’t exist anymore.

“They were excluded from so much, golf outings or clubs, places that wouldn’t allow women,” she said. But the coalition remains relevant, she said, because of its monthly policy luncheons with Hill or administration tax experts and the networking among its bipartisan membership, which includes women on K Street, Capitol Hill and in the administration.

“If you’re at a table for eight to 10 people, you have a little more time to get to know people,” said Mueller, who served as staff director for a Ways and Means Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures. “For tax, it’s especially important.”

Some of the original tax chicks say they’re eager to be in on the action surrounding the next round of tax reform.

“The tax code is so broken right now,” said Bernstein, now the vice president of tax counsel for the National Retail Federation. “Usually you’re just trying to fix a little edge; you have no opportunity to fix the whole thing, but this would be that opportunity.”

Goold, though, is retiring at the end of the year. Will she keep tabs on the fight?

“Oh, you bet your sweet life,” she said. “Sometimes being involved in tax law is really boring day to day, but once you’re in the realm of policy, it is always interesting.”

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