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