Michael Ferrell couldn’t lose—he had a Supreme Court justice at his disposal.
In 1973, when Ferrell was a senior at Mercy College of Detroit, he participated in a debate on the death penalty as part of a political science class. Assigned the “con” position, Ferrell said to himself, “This [would be] a great assignment for Justice White.”
Ferrell wrote a letter to Justice Byron White—a family friend—asking him for background materials. In response, “White sent me six inches worth of materials! Needless to say, I [clobbered] my opponent.”
For Ferrell—who is joining Williams Mullen to launch a federal government-affairs practice—this was but one of many interactions with the legendary “Whizzer” White, a former running back for the Detroit Lions who spent 31 years on the high court. Four years earlier, while visiting friends in D.C., Ferrell had gotten in touch with White’s secretary after thinking to himself, “Justice White is down here—I should give him a call.”
Ferrell’s naiveté—paying a social call on a sitting Supreme Court justice—speaks to what he calls the “stupidity of youth.” Nonetheless, 20 minutes after ringing White’s chambers, Ferrell was told to “come on up.”
In his new job, Ferrell will reprise an earlier role at Venable, where he cultivated that firm’s first government-affairs practice, now one of the largest in the country. A onetime chief of staff to former Rep. Robert Garcia, D-N.Y., Ferrell spent 11 years on Capitol Hill before moving to the private sector in the mid-1980s.
A native of Detroit, Ferrell has watched his hometown fall to ruin. When he was growing up, “autos were king,” Ferrell said. “I always kept my eyes peeled for the new car models wending their way through the streets of Detroit in [advance] of the new car unveilings in the fall.”
Since that time, however, “vast stretches of neighborhoods [have become] bombed-out sections.” The house where Ferrell grew up—“on a lovely street covered with elm trees”—has become a crack house. “It’s all boarded up.”
Ferrell’s father, an auto salesman, was at one time a scrappy politico. “As a kid in Toledo, Ohio, he [ousted] his Democratic ward committee boss—that was the one and only office he ever ran for. I keep his election notice on my office wall.”
As for Ferrell’s mother, she was a comely stay-at-home mother and interior designer who had been courted by Whizzer White years earlier.
“They went on a few dates and remained friends—even though they went on to marry other people. I have autographed pictures that he sent my mother of him sitting on the bench in his Detroit Lions football uniform.”
Ferrell’s proximity to White—then a practicing attorney and budding political operative—stoked his interest in political matters. Ferrell recalls staying up on the night of September 26, 1960, to watch an incandescent Sen. John F. Kennedy joust with a fidgety Vice President Richard Nixon in the first-ever televised presidential debate. By age 11, Ferrell was “hanging campaign banners on freeway overpasses.”
At Mercy College (now University of Detroit Mercy), Ferrell studied history and political science, opting for the humanities because he was “never good with numbers.”
“I don’t even balance my checkbook, so I thought I was perfect for government,” Ferrell quipped.
After volunteering for George McGovern’s ill-fated 1972 presidential campaign, Ferrell interned for the late Sen. Phil Hart, D-Mich. He then spent over a decade working for Democratic lawmakers. Taking classes at night, Ferrell received a law degree from George Mason University in 1980.
Since leaving the Hill, Ferrell has established himself as one of the capital’s preeminent financial lobbyists. Before joining Venable, he spent nearly 10 years as the chief lobbyist and legislative strategist for the Mortgage Bankers Association of America.
This article appears in the July 21, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.