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Heritage Action Poised for Transition Amid CEO’s Exit

Michael Needham is leaving to become Sen. Marco Rubio’s chief of staff

Heritage Action produces an annual scorecard on how lawmakers voted on issues important to conservatives. (Screenshot/Heritage Action for America)
Heritage Action produces an annual scorecard on how lawmakers voted on issues important to conservatives. (Screenshot/Heritage Action for America)

Change is coming to Heritage Action for America, the political arm of one of the nation’s best known, and often controversial, think tanks.

Heritage Action for America has boosted its presence on Capitol Hill during CEO Michael Needham’s tenure, and his upcoming departure from the conservative outfit has fueled speculation about whether the uptick in advocacy will continue.

Needham said this week that he was leaving the group — the lobbying and advocacy division of the larger Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank that is itself under new management — to become chief of staff for Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

The foundation’s board last year ousted its high-profile top executive, former Sen. Jim DeMint, who left last May. Kay Coles James, who served in both Bush administrations, took over the foundation as president in January, and cuts a more measured profile when compared with her South Carolina Republican predecessor, known for his bombastic persona.

“I can definitely say that in terms of Heritage Action, our mission remains the same,” said Dan Holler, a vice president at Heritage Action. “We’re still going to be working to advance conservative policies on the Hill.”

Heritage Action produces an annual scorecard on how lawmakers voted on issues important to conservatives. Much of the political group’s influence on policy comes from its nationwide grass-roots network, but in recent years the group has boosted its investment in Hill lobbying, according to congressional lobbying disclosures.

Heritage Action reported spending $820,000 on lobbying in 2017, its most ever, compared with just $62,000 in 2010, the year that Republicans captured control of the House. Heritage Action had annual revenue of about $12 million, according to a 2016 IRS form, while the foundation’s annual revenue was $82 million.

“I think it will be a pretty easy transition at Heritage Action,” said Ken Blackwell, a former Heritage fellow who serves on policy task forces for the group. Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state and prominent conservative, is a senior fellow with the Family Research Council and serves on the board of the Club for Growth.

“I’m not alarmed or worried that Heritage Action will go in a different route or collapse with his departure,” he added.

Blackwell said he expects the remaining Heritage Action staffers, along with Heritage Foundation leadership, to continue to steer the group toward policies that blend both populism and conservatism.

“I actually see a bridge back inside as being possible,” Blackwell said about Needham’s departure for Rubio’s staff. He noted that, particularly under DeMint’s leadership, Heritage Action had strained relations with some congressional leaders. In 2013, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, for example, openly criticized conservative organizations amid policy disputes.

“That strain has subsided,” Blackwell said.

Neither the Heritage Foundation nor Heritage Action offered details about the transition plans or details of the search to replace Needham. Heritage Action declined a request to speak to a member of the group’s board.

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Policy fights

During the DeMint and Needham tenures, Heritage Action took on high-profile policy fights, including over the fate of the credit agency Export-Import Bank, that often pitted it against the pro-business wing of the GOP. House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas championed an unsuccessful elimination of the bank, kicking it off with a news conference at Heritage headquarters on Capitol Hill four years ago.

Needham has overseen Heritage Action’s growth in lobbying, including over the Ex-Im issue, a push to repeal the Obama-era health care law, and fiscal and other issues. Needham’s compensation package was slightly more than $400,000, according to a 2016 IRS filing.

“Over the past several years, Mike has gained the reputation as a leading conservative thought leader,” Tim Chapman, Heritage Action’s chief operating officer, said in a news statement. “He has a unique ability to identify political and cultural trends across our nation and articulate the role conservative policies can play in solving our nation’s most pressing challenges.”

Needham is among many Heritage staffers who have decamped in recent years for Capitol Hill or for the Trump administration, following a wave of such departures back in 2014 that included Erin Siefring, who became chief of staff for Virginia GOP Rep. Dave Brat. She now runs her own advocacy firm.

Dan Ziegler, a managing director of government relations, became the executive director of the Republican Study Committee this year, while Heritage Action’s former managing director for communications and grass roots joined the White House’s digital team. Jessica Anderson, a former grass-roots director for Heritage Action, went to the Office of Management and Budget.

“Congress has long been the home of extraordinary staffers, so it’s no surprise one of the Senate’s champions of conservatism, Marco Rubio, would turn to our very own Mike Needham for his next Chief of Staff!,” James said in a news release. “We are excited for Mike and hope his new journey brings him back frequently to his many friends at Heritage.”

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