Washington is a town obsessed with power—how it is acquired, how it is used, and especially who wields it. In some ways, the answers are intuitive and obvious: by poll, in policy, by the president on down. But as we all know, there is more to the story. The noise of outside advocacy groups, the push and pull of conflicting interests, and the often-invisible impact of money all affect the use of power.
(FULL COVERAGE: Washington's Women)
Although Washington is still a long way from gender parity, women are gaining more top positions (in Congress, on the Supreme Court, and in the administration) every year. A lesser-told story is their rise outside D.C. officialdom. Some of Washington’s most influential women, such as Nancy Pelosi, have the renown that accords with their station. But many others—for example, Sharon Soderstrom, the chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, or American Insurance Association President Leigh Ann Pusey—wield less-visible authority.
So we asked our Political Insiders—174 experts from a range of D.C. specialties—who they think are doing the most to shape this town. From their suggestions, a National Journal panel of reporters and editors compiled a highly unscientific list of 25 of Washington’s most influential women. We left off some obviously important people (such as Valerie Jarrett and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), because rather than pick three Supreme Court justices, for instance, we wanted to include women from all facets of Washington life. Many of these women talked to NJ about their (slowly) increasing share of power, the work/life balance everyone here struggles with, and other obstacles that women must still overcome.
Jackie Calmes has covered three presidents during her journalism career, but the simple act of approaching Air Force One still gets to her. “It’s such an iconic symbol of the power of this country,” she says. “To me, it’s like the American eagle.” Now, she covers the White House for the world’s most influential newspaper, one to which the Obama administration pays close attention.
As a little girl, Calmes would tell anyone who would listen that she was going to be the first woman president. Over time, she realized that there are two kinds of people when it comes to politics: the participants and the observers. She decided to become the latter.
After graduating with a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University, the Ohio native headed to Texas where she covered politics for six years before making her way to Washington in 1984. Calmes, 57, has reported on Congress, presidents, and elections for Congressional Quarterly, The Atlanta Constitution, and The Wall Street Journal. In 2008, she started at The New York Times, where she is currently the White House correspondent.
Gerald Seib, now the Washington bureau chief for the WSJ, submitted Calmes’s articles in 2005 for the Gerald R. Ford Journalism Prize for Reporting on the Presidency. He attributes her victory to her ability to write about politics, policy, and economics. “She takes serious subjects seriously, without taking herself too seriously,” Seib says. “That makes her both good and a lot of fun to work with.”
Calmes has this advice for young women: “Have a goal, make it your north star, all the while knowing you’ll have to make adjustments and trade-offs along the way.” Calmes’s own life adjustments came with her two daughters. She has no regrets that she chose to juggle children and a career. “I’d never say I had it all,” she says, “but I came as close to it as I could have hoped.”
By Brianna McClane
Hillary Rodham Clinton
In the 1980s, when she was the first lady of Arkansas and chair of her husband’s education-reform commission, Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered her findings to a group of skeptical state lawmakers. Rep. Lloyd George, the tobacco-spitting epitome of Arkansas’s good ol’ boy tradition, sprang to his feet and shouted, “Gentlemen, we have elected the wrong Clinton!”
He was the first to say so, but not the last.
In the next three decades, Hillary Clinton—smarter, tougher, and more get-it-done pragmatic than her talk-it-out husband—engineered Bill Clinton’s climb to the White House and later reached for that pinnacle herself in 2008. She is now a successful secretary of State who has traveled tirelessly to a record 100 countries in the service of her trusting boss, President Obama. She is, hands down, the most influential woman in Washington.
It’s been a long road. She was a liability in 1980 when voters tossed Bill from the Governor’s Mansion and an asset in 1982 when she willed him to a career-reviving return to office. Her loyalty saved his political career during sex scandals in 1992 and 1998. Her rigid and cloistered leadership of the 1993 health care debate harmed her husband’s presidency. On matters of politics and policy, Hillary Clinton was one of the most influential first ladies in U.S. history.
Rivals in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton and Obama went on to establish a strong relationship built more on mutual respect than friendship. Obama admires her work ethic and loyalty, and believes that her fame burnishes his foreign-policy agenda. In their shared worldview, defense of democratic rights (Libya) is tempered by cold pragmatism about what U.S. power can achieve (Syria and Pakistan). The secretary argued privately for more troops in Afghanistan and Iraq but faithfully executed the decision to wind down the wars. Clinton, 64, will not serve a second term at State, but her influence is bigger than any title, if for no other reason than this: She is the most credible successor to Obama.
Spokesman Philippe Reines says that Clinton didn’t have time to discuss her most-influential ranking with National Journal. “If she rates the list again next year,” he said in an e-mail, “she’ll have nothing but free time.” Don’t buy that. I’ve covered the Clintons since the mid-1980s—long enough to know and respect Hillary Clinton as much as anybody in Washington. Long enough to believe that America will get another chance to elect a woman long ago tagged the “right Clinton.”
By Ron Fournier
Dianne Feinstein occupies that rare and enviable space for a politician: She’s both popular back home and powerful in Washington. The California Democrat is running for her fourth full term in the Senate this year, but running is an overstatement. It’s more of a saunter. She hasn’t faced a serious challenge in a decade, and she finished atop a 24-person field in June’s open primary, with her closest rival a woeful 37 percentage points behind. In an interview, she conceded, “I think there’s a very good chance I’ll be reelected” this year.
That electoral security has given Feinstein, 79, the freedom to operate as a political player in Washington. These days, she chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee at a time of drone strikes, cyberwarfare, and counterterrorism intelligence-gathering. A moderate Democrat from a very blue state, she has shown a willingness to buck the party line, such as calling the recent “avalanche of leaks” of classified intelligence “very disturbing.” The issue had been mostly seized on by Republicans accusing the White House of doling out details for political gain.
But Feinstein has managed to stay in favor in the highest echelons of the Democratic Party. It was in her living room, after all, that Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton met face-to-face in 2008 for the first time after Obama became the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. And as chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee in 2009, she presided over Obama’s inauguration ceremonies.
Throughout her tenure, she has been a Senate bellwether, sometimes on legislation and sometimes, as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, on whether judges will be confirmed. “I’ve always felt that the thing that counts is being very practical,” Feinstein says.
By Shane Goldmacher
Mary Kay Henry
The eldest daughter in a family of 10, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry now heads a much larger brood, but she retains the big-sister sense of responsibility. “I don’t feel like I will have made my mark as president of SEIU until I create the conditions for a turnaround for all working people,” says Henry, whose union claims 2.1 million members.
Speaking with National Journal the day after the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the health care law, Henry was ebullient, recounting stories of how nurses signed each other’s smocks “as a signature of ‘We did it.’ ” The ruling was a bright spot, Henry says, “in a time when the attack on working people is intensifying.” National unions, in response, have largely healed the rifts that divided them, a project she pledged to prioritize when she was elected the first female SEIU president in 2010. Since then, she has helped build the union’s political action committee, to the point where 300,000 members donate—voluntarily, Henry says—to SEIU’s PAC.
Muscle like that could help with legislation such as immigration reform, which Henry predicts will pass Congress next year. She is less sanguine about the prospect of the so-called card-check bill, once a top priority for organized labor because it would ease the organizing of new unions. Instead, Henry, who turns 55 this month, wants labor–and progressive forces generally—to emphasize overarching issues such as reducing income inequality, changing tax policy, and improving public education. It’s a liberal wish list that Henry thinks she can help sell by bringing her members’ life stories to the public. “I think of myself as a channel for the 2.1 million members that we represent, and their influence is what I wield,” she says.
By Jim O’Sullivan
A quick rundown of the high-level lobbying executives whom Spencer Stuart’s Leslie Hortum has helped get hired should leave no doubt about her lasting influence in Washington. She is responsible for placing Dave McCurdy with the American Gas Association, former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne with the American Council of Life Insurers, Dawn Sweeney with the National Restaurant Association, and Susan Neely with the American Beverage Association. “I’m pretty proud of that one,” Hortum said of Neely, who organized the beverage industry’s campaign against a soda tax and has frequently been named among the top political executives in the city.
Hortum had already spent 20 years in the trade-association world before becoming a specialist in helping companies and nonprofit groups find people to lead them. She was the first female senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she was entrusted with the task of building (and in some cases rebuilding) relationships with local chambers. She also spent 13 years at the American Trucking Association, where she forged her long-standing friendship with U.S. Chamber President Tom Donohue, who headed the trucking association when Hortum was there. Hortum got used to being in a male-dominated arena at the trucking association, although she said that the cultural differences occasionally peeked through. At one point, Hortum suggested serving a light lunch at the association’s annual convention, “instead of meat and potatoes and wine,” so that the attendees would stay awake. Her idea was summarily rejected.
Hortum, 54, said that her job now is to find the right leader for organizations that are in transition and may be in turmoil. The task requires an “incredibly honest” conversation among all the parties about what the leadership job entails. Longtime relationships matter, because Hortum needs people to “tell me the truth” about the candidates. “The older you get the better you get, because of the relationships you have,” she said. “It’s a small town. You know a lot.”
By Fawn Johnson
Karen Ignagni notched a major achievement in 2010 when Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. And she is again triumphant now that the Supreme Court has upheld its critical individual mandate. Ignagni, 58, runs the major health insurance trade association called America’s Health Insurance Plans, where she has scored numerous other victories on behalf of the much-maligned industry.
Ignagni was at the table from the outset of President Obama’s health care effort. Chastened by the Clinton administration’s earlier failures, the White House knew it needed the insurance industry in its corner. In exchange for the tough new regulation that they had fought in the past, Ignagni helped to ensure that her members got some big benefits—millions of new customers thanks to the individual mandate and an estimated $1 trillion in revenue through 2020, according to Bloomberg Government. “We spent a great deal of time preparing,” she recalls. “We had very specific proposals.”
Ignagni has been involved with the health insurance industry since 1993, having worked on Capitol Hill for former Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., and for the Health and Human Services Department. She discounts her personal touch in accomplishing AHIP’s goals, crediting the cooperation of her members and a data-driven approach to conversing with policy makers. But those who have worked with her say she’s a skilled communicator who engenders the trust needed to close big deals. “I think she’s someone who operates in very good faith,” says Sheridan Group consultant Dan Smith, who worked with Ignagni when he was president of the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the staff director of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. “She’s incredibly smart, and just a terrific advocate for her organization. And she’s tenacious.”
By Margot Sanger-Katz
With a long history as an environmental steward, Lisa Jackson was more than prepared to combat pollution and climate change when she was confirmed to head the Environmental Protection Agency in 2009. But since she took office, she has also found herself at the center of a different, more divisive, battle.
Jackson, the first African-American EPA administrator and the fourth woman to hold the position, is directly in the cross fire between energy and environmental interests, both inside and outside Washington. At a time of economic uncertainty, EPA, symbolized by its clean-air rules, has become to critics the symbol of “government overreach” and “job-killing” regulations. Republicans have denounced Jackson on the campaign trail and dragged her before numerous congressional committees. The GOP-controlled House has passed bill after bill to repeal or delay EPA regulations. Some Republican candidates have called for eliminating her position—and her agency—altogether. Faced with such blowback, Jackson, 50, has spent much of her time defending her agency’s work and arguing that a cleaner environment and a healthy economy are not antithetical.
Far from backing down, she has pressed ahead, issuing and implementing rules to control mercury emissions and other toxic air pollution from power plants, and setting higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks to reduce vehicle emissions and cut U.S. dependence on oil imports. And now that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has upheld EPA’s controversial greenhouse-gas emissions regulations, they join a group of pending rules that Jackson will be working to enforce in the face of congressional gridlock.
Along with the uphill battle of restoring the public’s trust in the agency’s work, Jackson has prioritized outreach to children, the elderly, and low-income communities—all groups that are especially susceptible to the health threats from pollution and climate change.
By Olga Belogolova
Elena Kagan’s New York roots are well-known, but her Washington footprint may be bigger than that of any other Supreme Court justice. She clerked for both Abner Mikva, then-chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, and the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (who gave her the nickname “Shorty”); she punched her downtown ticket at Williams & Connolly; and she served in the Clinton White House, first as associate counsel and later at the Domestic Policy Council.
After teaching at her alma mater, Harvard Law School, and becoming the law school’s dean, Kagan was named solicitor general by a fellow Harvard Law grad, President Obama, in 2009. The position is sometimes called “the 10th Justice,” because the solicitor argues before the high court. She joined the Court almost two years ago, after Republicans put up a modest fight.
Is Kagan’s up-from-the-Upper-West-Side story more impressive than those of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Sonia Sotomayor? Perhaps not. Ginsburg rose in the legal profession when it was harder for women to do, and the Bronx-born Sotomayor grew up poor. But Kagan is arguably more influential, with stronger ties to the power elite in the city.
At 52, Kagan is the youngest justice and the one whom actuarial tables say is likely to be there the longest. She is the first Supreme Court justice since William Rehnquist not to have previously served as a judge. Kagan, like Rehnquist, has considerable political skills; but unlike him, she’s emerging as a pivotal centrist—voting with usual swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy much more often than any of their colleagues. When Obama tapped Kagan for the Court in 2010 some liberals feared she was too moderate. But so far, that’s put her in the heart of the action.
By Matthew Cooper
Cathy McMorris Rodgers
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state is the highest-ranking woman in the House GOP leadership, the congressional liaison to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and on the list of potential candidates to be Romney’s running mate. What is she most proud of? “I’m proud to be a mom. I love being a mom. I love that experience and watching my kids grow and learn and being a part of their lives,” she said. “Because of my kids, I’m a better representative.”
McMorris Rodgers is not the first woman to give birth while serving in national elected office—that distinction goes to former Rep. Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, D-Calif., in 1973—but she is the first woman to give birth twice as a member of Congress. Her 5-year-old son, Cole, was born with the genetic condition commonly known as Down syndrome, which gave McMorris Rodgers a new reason to advocate for people with disabilities. Her daughter, Grace, was born in December 2010.
McMorris Rodgers, 43, is in her fourth congressional term and her second term as vice chair of the House Republican Conference. She is the only woman and the youngest member of the elected House Republican leadership. Romney tapped her in May to be his eyes and ears in Congress after she endorsed him in December and agreed to help with his campaign in Washington state. “It’s just bringing some leadership in the House and unifying the members,” she said of her role with the Romney camp.
Along with Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., McMorris Rodgers led the House Republican response to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision upholding the individual mandate in President Obama’s health care law, saying that it is “still unworkable” even if it is constitutional. Romney is right in sync with that idea, she said. “He has never supported a national mandate.”
By Fawn Johnson
If you’re a conservative candidate, lobbyist, or fundraiser navigating the rules of Washington, you probably already know Cleta Mitchell’s name. Mitchell is the chairwoman of the American Conservative Union Foundation, the president of the Republican Lawyers Association, and a board member of the National Rifle Association, which she represented in a 2002 campaign finance case before the Supreme Court.
Mitchell literally wrote the book on lobbying regulations and ethics rules: Her 2008 tome was called The Lobbying Compliance Handbook. She regularly gives seminars to conservative groups on how to legally raise money and influence politicians. “Today, Cleta is one of the most knowledgeable and effective advocates in the conservative camp,” NRA President David Keene told the Leadership Institute. “She knows politics [and] the law and is fearless in her pursuit of principle.”
Mitchell, 61, works with Minnesota for Marriage and the Maryland Marriage Alliance, groups that seek to bar gay marriage in their respective states. Leading up to the November election, Mitchell is advising conservative congressional candidates as well as third-party expenditure campaigns opposing President Obama. She served in the Oklahoma House from 1976 to 1984, where she chaired the Appropriations and Budget Committee. Mitchell said that her former life as a legislator enables her to bring her legal know-how to people in politics. “I love helping other people be involved in the process,” Mitchell says.
Her transition from the floor of the Oklahoma House to the courtrooms and boardrooms of Washington also took Mitchell from one party to another. Mitchell was a Democrat in Oklahoma, something you would never guess listening to her speak about personal liberty, limited government, and how the tea party restored her faith in America. But she says she had a formative experience studying the Constitution and colonial-era laws. “One of the founding principles was limited government, and I began to realize the Democrat Party was the party of government,” Mitchell says. “I realized I was not of that mind and that a government big enough to take care of all of us is big enough to destroy anyone at anytime.”
Mitchell recently helped launch former presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s new foundation, Patriot Voices.
By Julia Edwards
Whether it’s men and women or Democrats and Republicans, former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., has experience bridging gaps. Elected in 1990 to succeed her father in the House, she joined the slim ranks of GOP women in Congress. Molinari says that succeeding in a male-dominated Congress prepared her well to work in the male-heavy tech sector, where she was named Google’s vice president of public policy and government relations for the Americas in March.
Molinari, 54, brought conservative credentials to Google, but tech issues rarely break down along party lines. “I have good friends in the Democratic Party, and I don’t think I would have gotten this job if that wasn’t my reputation,” she says. Scott Segal, who worked with Molinari at the public-affairs firm Bracewell & Giuliani, praised that ability to build bridges and Molinari’s “superb strategic sense” for how Washington operates. “When you are a Northeastern Republican, it comes naturally to build coalitions on both sides of the aisle,” he says.
Now at the helm of Google’s growing policy shop in D.C., Molinari sees herself as a mediator between Silicon Valley innovators and Washington regulators. She wants to make sure that policymakers appreciate what Google can offer in terms of job growth and technological innovation. Job creation is a message with a receptive audience, she says, but it is often overshadowed: She joined the company as Google’s dominance online began to draw greater scrutiny from antitrust regulators and as congressional leaders grilled company executives about privacy concerns. But Molinari, who is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of government tech policies, isn’t backing down. And neither should other women who are in the business of government, she says. “If you believe in yourself and your capabilities, then gender should have nothing to do with it.”
By Josh Smith
Lisa Murkowski, 55, has charted one of the most unconventional careers in Senate history, yet her nepotistic ascension and untraditional reelection to the world’s most exclusive club perhaps only enhances her position as one of its most pivotal members. The Ketchikan, Alaska, native entered the upper chamber in 2002 through a highly controversial and unique appointment made by her father, Frank Murkowski, who had just become governor. She was elevated to her seat above more-senior state Republicans to serve out his Senate term. Since then, Murkowski has alternately followed in her father’s footsteps by focusing on the Last Frontier and deviated from his example by bucking the state and national party.
She has raised the hackles of antiabortion groups by advocating to retain funding for Planned Parenthood; disappointed conservative activists by voting to raise taxes while in the state Legislature (she also defeated one of their darlings as a write-in candidate after losing the 2010 GOP primary, and voted to give undocumented students a path to citizenship); broken with party leadership by refusing to filibuster some judicial nominees; and proven to be an ally of gay-rights activists on some issues, including voting to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Most recently, Murkowski sided to some degree with the Obama administration in warning fellow lawmakers not to go too far in correcting course after the Solyndra bankruptcy. “We are focusing right now on the failures instead of also recognizing that we have done good things for the loan-guarantee program. We need to make sure it does what it is supposed to be doing,” the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s ranking member told The Hill last month.
For all of these reasons, Murkowski has become a “must-watch” vote on major issues. But her share of the limelight wasn’t earned just by being a maverick on key votes: She has proven to be a deft dealmaker, a dogged advocate for Alaska, and a resourceful lawmaker who finds uncommon paths to success.
By Nicole Duran
In Boston, Beth Myers is a minute away from the man who could be the 45th president of the United States. Her office is next to Mitt Romney’s at campaign headquarters. Myers, now a senior adviser to Romney, was his chief of staff when he was governor of Massachusetts. She is the person whom staff members seek out when they want the next best thing to an opinion from the candidate himself. She has a relationship with Romney and his wife, Ann, that former Romney administration member Tom Trimarco describes as “almost family.”
Myers is leading one of the campaign’s most consequential pursuits: Romney’s search for a vice presidential nominee. “She is an incredibly strong leader, and she has the governor’s ear as much as, if not more than, anybody else. And that’s why he chose her to head up his VP vetting process,” Communications Director Gail Gitcho says.
Myers likes to joke that, at 55, she is the “old lady” of a team of talented women on the campaign. A wife and a mother of two, she says that the female staffers help bring a family sensibility to the table. “What gets me ticking is how hard it is to make ends meet and how hard it is to keep your head above water. My husband and I both do very well … and at the end of the month, we’re both looking at each other and saying, ‘Where did it all go?’ ” Myers says. “It’s not just about jobs and numbers; it’s about people’s lives.”
She got her start in politics on Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign in Texas, where she impressed political operative Karl Rove with her organizational prowess. After a brief stint as a litigator, Myers returned to politics, eventually running Romney’s 2008 presidential bid.
Is a move to Washington in her future? “I don’t think about it,” Myers writes in an e-mail. “Would do anything for Mitt and Ann but am focused entirely on the campaign right now. Really.”
By Rebecca Kaplan
After she delivered her last State-of-the-State address as Arizona governor in January 2009, a late-night plane whisked Janet Napolitano to Washington for meetings at the White House and huddles on bioterrorism. She was about to take charge of the Homeland Security Department. The energetic secretary oversees 22 different government agencies that handle missions, including counterterrorism, disaster response, and cybersecurity. The first serious crisis on her watch, the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing in 2010, happened while she was in California with family. “You learn from each episode,” Napolitano says, recalling how the incident led to “some fundamental changes on how we manage our information within the department.”
At her male-dominated department, Napolitano, 54, is often the only woman at the meeting table. This isn’t a new experience for her. A former U.S. attorney in Arizona, she served as the state’s first female attorney general and as the first woman to chair the National Governors Association. Now Napolitano draws upon her skills to administer a complex immigration-enforcement system that was the subject of ridicule during George W. Bush’s presidency. She created a new command center in southern Arizona to plug the gaping hole in the U.S.-Mexico border that remained after the Bush administration patched up the weaknesses in Texas and Southern California.
Napolitano has been unapologetic about setting priorities for who should be deported. This summer, she will focus on implementing Obama’s initiative to defer deportation for certain young undocumented immigrants. “Since we don’t really know the numbers of kids we’re dealing with, planning for that is really quite challenging. We want to do it—and do it right,” she says.
By Sara Sorcher
Michelle Obama, 48, is without a doubt her husband’s fiercest supporter and closest confidant, as well as an accomplished public servant and a history-maker in her own right. She is known as much for her efforts to keep her two young daughters out of the spotlight, her role-model status for African-American girls and women, and her widely praised fashion sense as she is for her policy initiatives. Still, she has used her clout as first lady to launch two key programs: the “Let’s Move!” campaign to fight childhood obesity and “Joining Forces,” an initiative that supports veterans and military families. The first lady has championed a bill to improve school-lunch nutrition standards, coaxed private-sector companies into hiring veterans, and written the recently published book American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America.
Obama has been an eloquent surrogate for the president, both at the White House and on the campaign trail. In fact, public-opinion polls show that she has long been viewed more positively than her husband. The Daily Show host Jon Stewart joked with her during a recent interview about her sky-high approval rating. You’re “like ice cream,” Stewart said, compared to the president, who is more like—“vegetables?” the first lady suggested.
The former Michelle Robinson was born on the South Side of Chicago into a middle-class family. She attended Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and met the president when both worked at Chicago law firm Sidley Austin. Before moving to the White House, she served as the vice president for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. When asked about her priorities as first lady, Obama often cites keeping her daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11, grounded.
By Sophie Quinton
Four years after Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to lead the House in 2007, she lost the speaker’s gavel when Republicans swept into control of the chamber. Still, she remains the most powerful U.S. female elected official today—if not arguably in history. But a hot topic in Washington this summer is whether the 72-year-old California grandmother is ready to call it quits. Pelosi gives no indication publicly that she wants to leave Congress soon. A longtime ally in the House, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., says he doesn’t know her plans but that regardless, “hers is already an amazing legacy.”
The reason why many Democrats so admire Pelosi and why Republicans so demonize her—and why even some within her party are torn—was on display the day the Supreme Court largely upheld the health care law. Asked whether the ruling could harm Democrats in this year’s elections by reopening debate over the controversial legislation, she told a reporter: “Politics be damned, this is about what we came [here] to do!” Pelosi, of course, was the driving force behind the passage of the health law in 2010 as well as other controversial measures. However, emphasizing that fact and framing Pelosi as the face of her party was a big part of the Republicans’ winning formula in regaining the House majority later that year.
Yet, Pelosi’s party chose her to head it again as minority leader. And if she carries some political baggage, Miller said, it’s because Pelosi fights for things she believes in, and Republicans “spent $60 million demonizing her for it.” For all of the criticism that she is too polarizing or too much of a lightning rod, Pelosi has already raised more than $54.4 million this election cycle for her party.
By Billy House
Heather Podesta knew what she was getting herself into when she married powerhouse Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta in 2003. If she decided to take his name, Tony told her, she should understand that some people would despise her without knowing her. Others would be fiercely loyal without ever having met her. “That is so much cooler than being Heather Miller,” she remembers thinking at the time. “I’m ready to be a Podesta.”
Her marriage may have officially inducted her into Washington’s inner power circles—Tony is among the best-known lobbyists on K Street, while his brother, John Podesta, was chief of staff to President Clinton and founded the Center for American Progress—but over the past decade, Heather Podesta has also become a force to be reckoned with.
A University of Virginia-educated lawyer and a former congressional aide, Podesta started her own lobby shop, Heather Podesta + Partners, in 2007. What was once a two-person office has expanded to 11 and boasts a client list that includes Eli Lilly, Cigna, Home Depot, Marathon Oil, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and other giants. In 2010, the firm had its best year, raking in $7.3 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Podesta, 42, is also a formidable Democratic bundler, raising tens of thousands of dollars for candidates around the country.
Many may have written her off as “Tony’s wife” in the past, Heather Podesta says, but with her firm continuing to flex its muscles, that isn’t much of a problem anymore. Her job, as she sees it, is to explain Democrats to businesses and business to Democrats—no easy task in Washington’s hyper-partisan political climate.
Around town, she’s known as diligent and informed, but never at the expense of a bit of personal flair. In business, that means there are no titles at Heather Podesta + Partners—it’s more egalitarian that way. You might also see her bobbing around Capitol Hill attired in bold colors and flamboyant patterns. “I really enjoy being a woman, and it’s not anything that I shy away from and try to hide in a black pantsuit,” Podesta says. “And when you do that, you can play, you can be creative, but you also stick out in a hearing.”
By Naureen Khan
Leigh Ann Pusey
Two things about American Insurance Association President Leigh Ann Pusey make it clear how intertwined she is with the political webbing of Washington. She is credited with saving the commercial property insurance industry from the most severe Dodd-Frank restrictions, and she worked for then-Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner and then-Speaker Newt Gingrich during the last Republican takeover of Congress. “It was a crazy time and a heady time,” Pusey, 49, says of those years. “A lot of my time working with Newt, [then-Majority Leader] Dick Armey, and John Boehner was about how to structure the party’s message broadly.”
The lessons she learned serve her well in the association world. When Congress was debating the Dodd-Frank financial-reform legislation, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., told Pusey that there was no way lawmakers could fully exempt the property-insurance industry from regulation. The American International Group, after all, “was poster child of the economic crisis,” she says. “Congress was as reluctant as the administration to carve out insurance, even though insurance was, by definition, much less risky” than other financial services.
Yet Pusey got her association’s members to draw distinctions between their businesses and those of the banking industry in ways that helped lawmakers, awash in constituent anger over the economy, to understand. Dodd-Frank ended up citing existing state law when it came to insurance companies, so AIA members didn’t have to cope with a new set of regulations atop the state patchwork of insurance rules. The victory gratified Pusey, but she still worries that the federal law could generate new regulations. “We have to be very vigilant,” she says. “They wanted to claw a few lines of insurance in there. We prevented that, but I think that will be an ongoing battle.”
By Fawn Johnson
Cecile Richards may be the most experienced organizer to lead the Planned Parenthood Federation of America since Margaret Sanger, who founded it in 1921. Richards’s skills have served her organization well, especially since the GOP took control of the House in 2010. With more than 800 clinics nationwide, Planned Parenthood is the country’s largest provider of reproductive health services. Some of Richards’s predecessors have been doctors, but she came up through union organizing and Democratic politics. Colleagues say she is tough and, as veteran Democratic operative Steve Rosenthal puts it, “incredibly strategic.” She joined Planned Parenthood in February 2006 and “let loose on the Internet and hired people who knew what to do with it,” says Gina Glantz, who chairs the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. As one controversy after another buffeted the group over the past year, Richards and her team leveraged the attention to attract new members, money, and allies. Membership has soared from 2.8 million to 6.6 million since Richards became president.
Richards, who turns 54 this month, also plays an inside policy game, working closely with Congress and the White House on women’s health issues. The Republican drive to end federal funding for Planned Parenthood is a staple of President Obama’s fundraising and a sign of the backlash to what Richards and her allies are calling the GOP’s “war on women.” Still, Richards says she is trying to maintain the group’s bipartisan tradition. “We have Republican supporters all across the country,” she says.
Richards watched women’s progress up close as the daughter of the late Texas Gov. Ann Richards and then as an aide to Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2001 (when Pelosi started to ascend the House leadership ladder). “When my mom started in politics, women weren’t in politics,” Richards says. “I love the fact that we almost assume now that the secretary of State of the United States will be a woman.”
By Jill Lawrence
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., embodies many of the elements of the South Florida district that she represents, complete with an almost manic energy and a conservative zeal that she tempers with her fight for gay rights. As chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ros-Lehtinen has been a staunch supporter of Israel, supported the Iraq war, and forged a rare bipartisan bond with ranking member Howard Berman, D-Calif. She brushes aside the notion that bipartisanship could be risky business in a political climate that helped drive the demise of Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., saying she immerses herself in South Florida, while Lugar did not even own a home in his district. Growing up in Cuba, Ros-Lehtinen never dreamed that she would someday become the first Hispanic woman to serve in Congress. Her family moved to Miami when she was 8, and she went on to earn a doctorate in education and run a bilingual private school. Her passion to help struggling parents at her school pushed her into politics. She was elected in 1982 to the Florida House and became a state senator in 1986. Along the way, she met her husband, fellow politician Dexter Lehtinen, who is now a private attorney. Among her former staffers is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a possible contender for vice president, who she thinks should run for “the top job” someday.
Ros-Lehtinen, who turns 60 on July 15, has been a longtime supporter of gay rights, backing same-sex marriage and serving as one of the first GOP members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. LGBT issues are close to home for Ros-Lehtinen, whose daughter Amanda is now a transgender man named Rodrigo Lehtinen.
By Sophie Yarborough
Mary Schapiro became the first woman to serve as the confirmed head of the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2009—a rocky time for the SEC. She took office just over a month after Bernie Madoff was charged in one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in U.S. history, and people wanted to know how the SEC missed the fraud. Meanwhile, the commission was sorting through the fallout from the financial crisis and facing criticism for not preventing it in the first place.
Schapiro came in with her eyes open. A longtime regulator, she knew the ins and outs of Washington and the financial world. Her earlier jobs included a stint as CEO of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent securities regulator; as an SEC commissioner under President Reagan; and as the head of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under President Clinton. Schapiro, 57, credits her long career as a financial regulator to the sense of right and wrong that her parents imbued in her from a young age, and to their lesson that working hard and playing by the rules could be a path to getting ahead.
At her confirmation hearing, the native New Yorker pledged to reinvigorate the agency’s enforcement division. Last year, the SEC brought a record number of enforcement actions. This year isn’t looking much quieter, with a spate of Dodd-Frank rules needing to be written, a push for money-market fund reform under way, and a battle over SEC funding on the Hill. Schapiro may have started at a tumultuous time, but her job isn’t likely to slow down any time soon.
By Catherine Hollander
Sharon Soderstrom confronts Democrats’ charges of a Republican “war on women” with the complication that a top staffer supposedly executing it is female. As the chief of staff for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Soderstrom is Congress’s highest ranking female aide.
The native Long Islander has worked her way up. Soderstrom, 52, has 27 years of Hill experience and has “done just about everything” on the Senate staff side, one colleague said. She began working on Capitol Hill while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. She has since worked for then-Sen. Paul Trible, R-Va.; for Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., in his first stint in the Senate; and for then-Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., on the Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. She is on her third job for a Republican leader, having worked for Majority Leaders Trent Lott of Mississippi and Bill Frist of Tennessee, before joining McConnell as deputy chief of staff in 2007.
Current and former colleagues praise Soderstrom’s experience and perspective. “Nobody knows more about the Senate, and she is a terrific person to boot,” said Kyle Simmons, whom Soderstrom succeeded as chief of staff in 2010 when he joined a lobbying firm. What Soderstrom doesn’t do is deal with the press. A consummate Senate staffer, she lets the boss do the talking. She declined an interview request and asked not to be listed among influential Washington women. But Soderstrom is certainly that. As McConnell’s senior aide, she oversees a staff of about 30 leadership aides and is his main point of contact with other leadership offices. She advised McConnell on matters such as the 2010 tax deal, widely seen as favorable to Republicans, and last year’s debt-ceiling agreement.
By Dan Friedman
Neera Tanden doesn’t shy away from the political trenches. The 15-year veteran of health care policy spearheaded the Obama administration’s often-tense negotiations with Capitol Hill to pass the Affordable Care Act. Usually that meant talking directly with lawmakers and explaining the intricacies of a complex bill that had become a political firebomb—a process that she says was stressful but ultimately rewarding. “Every day, it felt like issues popped up that needed to be solved, and it was a roller coaster, emotionally,” says Tanden, 41. “But, overall, I had the somewhat counterintuitive view that it essentially restored my faith people are trying to do the right thing.”
Her efforts paid off in June when the Supreme Court upheld the lion’s share of the health care law, and now Tanden is focused on finding the same success as president of the Center for American Progress. She calls Washington’s preeminent progressive group an “action tank,” a nod to its influence—not just through white papers but also in real-world guidance for politicians—across a range of policy arenas from economics to foreign policy. “Really, every issue on the top of minds of people in Washington is an issue CAP is working on,” she says.
Friends describe Tanden as sharp and well versed in policy. And, perhaps surprisingly for someone who has spent more than a decade at the highest levels of government and politics, she isn’t a cynic. Tanden served as a top domestic policy adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton and was a linchpin in both the Clinton and Obama campaigns in 2008, but her optimism remains undiminished. “It may sound corny, but there really isn’t anything more rewarding over the course of your career than seeing problems and trying to solve them,” she says.
By Alex Roarty
Beth Wilkinson has never lost a case—if you don’t count a mistrial last year. The silver-tongued litigator was hired by the Federal Trade Commission earlier this year to investigate whether Google stifles competition by giving preference to the company’s services in its search results. Wilkinson says she and her colleagues have not decided whether the federal government ought to bring a complaint against the Mountain View, Calif.-based behemoth.
A partner in the Washington office of New York-based Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, Wilkinson first came to the attention of many Americans as a lead prosecutor in U.S. v. McVeigh & Nichols. Despite successfully arguing for the execution of Timothy McVeigh—architect of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing—Wilkinson counsels restraint in the administration of capital punishment. Apart from her work for the FTC, she is also involved in a case with far-reaching implications for the most popular sport in America. Thousands of retired NFL players—a full quarter of those ever to play in the league—are suing the $9 billion league over neuro-cognitive damages. This time, Wilkinson is playing defense, trying to fend off a consolidated mega-lawsuit on the NFL’s behalf.
While praising Anne-Marie Slaughter for her explosive cover story in the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Wilkinson takes issue with Slaughter’s premise that motherhood is the main stumbling block for women today. “Gender issues transcend being a mother and have to do with being female; where there is sexism, it has nothing to do with the [work/life] balance.”
The 49-year-old is married to David Gregory, host of NBC News’ Meet the Press. She neither courts nor shuns publicity. “One [family member] on television is enough.”
By Christopher Snow Hopkins
Candi Wolff is busy. As Citigroup’s executive vice president for global government affairs, she oversees the banking giant’s relations with federal, state, and local governments, as well as 100 foreign governments. When Citi hired her in 2011, executives cited her government background, including eight years in the Senate and time with the Republican Policy Committee, as evidence that she could influence Washington’s movers and shakers after Citi received the largest bailout of any bank. Since then, Wolff has worked to rehabilitate the company’s image in town, especially on the Hill, by any and all means, including writing for Citi’s blog, where she addresses legislative issues and their impact on the company and its clients. Still, her current job is less frantic than her stint as President George W. Bush’s top legislative aide. After three years of spending little time at home, and appeasing her daughters with ice cream and fireworks on the White House’s South Lawn, Wolff stepped down in 2007. “It’s a constant evaluation,” she says of the work/life balance, “and it changes as your kids get to different stages in life.”
Wolff, 48, fell in love with D.C. during her junior year at Mount Holyoke College, where she studied political science and mathematics. She caught the politics bug during an internship with Sen. Lowell Weicker, R-Conn. “I love the policy. I love the interaction of policy and politics,” she says. After college, she moved to Washington in 1986 to attend law school at George Washington University and never left. During 26 years inside the Beltway, Wolff says that gift regulations and disclosure requirements have leveled the playing field for lobbyists. It’s less of the “old boys’ network” focused on drinks, she says; now lobbyists must rely on their knowledge of policy.
By Brianna McClane
This article appears in the July 14, 2012, edition of National Journal.