The article incorrectly referred to HealthSouth as an "insurance giant." HealthSouth is not an insurance company; it is a health-care provider.
|Page 2 of 4 < >|
Heather Podesta, a Storm in the Summer of the Lobbyist
Now, get ready for the Summer of the Lobbyist.
In a glum economy, the lobbying business feels kind of bubbly. Every new Obama proposal comes with acres of fine print for corporate powers, interests groups and lobbyists to haggle over, profitably. Three gargantuan legislative challenges -- health care, the environment, the economy -- crisscrossing at once on Capitol Hill. Major health-care interests alone are spending $1.4 million this year lobbying Congress . . . per day, according to Common Cause, a government watchdog group. A lobbyist's delight created, ironically, by the let's-solve-all-our-problems-RIGHT-NOW approach of a president who pooh-poohed the excesses of lobbyists.
"This is a very good time to be a Democratic lobbyist . . . it's incredibly exciting to be able to engage with Democrats and really see things happen," Podesta says one afternoon at her office in one of those cool, restored red-brick buildings on E Street. "It's always a good time to be Heather Podesta."
There are more than 12,500 registered lobbyists -- about 23 for every member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics -- and some are getting richer while others stagnate or even dip a bit because of all of this pesky recession talk. But those who operate at the confluence of this summer's big three legislative streams are happiest of all.
Podesta is right there in the eddy, an It Girl in a new generation of young, highly connected, built-for-the-Obama-era lobbyists. She gets an undeniable boost from a famous name -- she is the sister-in-law of John Podesta, the insider's insider who was Bill Clinton's White House chief of staff and Obama's transition director, and the wife of über-lobbyist Tony Podesta. Heather and Tony run his-and-hers lobbying shops. His grew a staggering 57 percent in the first six months of this year compared with the same period the year before, taking in $11.8 million, fourth-highest among major lobbying firms. (Full disclosure: Tony Podesta has long represented The Washington Post, which paid him $10,000 in 2009 and $80,000 the year before, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) Her six-person shop grew even faster, rocketing 65 percent to $3.4 million.
The Scarlet 'L'
Few Washington lobbyists do "The Ask" with more whimsy than Heather Podesta, a leggy 39-year-old with striking streaks of silver in her black hair, a flirty style and a lawyer's eye for detail. In a sea of Washington gray, Podesta has a penchant for flamboyantly patterned dresses -- a Brazilian number featuring the image of a cassette tape one recent afternoon. She once read one of those networking manuals and she took its advice to heart: Wear interesting clothing or jewelry to spark conversations; no matter where you are, pretend you're the hostess.
This took some doing for the daughter of two academics who grew up in a Rochester, N.Y., home, far removed from A-list soirees. "There is this 12-year-old geeky girl in me who just wants to read books and have nothing to do with anyone," Podesta says. "Big glasses, jeans too short, wearing running sneakers. Total geek."
Now, it's all about hosting a luncheon for "kick-ass women" at the Pakistani Embassy and cheekily urging guests to "slip on your Birkenstocks" for a fundraiser in honor of that Senatorial Deadhead himself, Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Sometimes, she might be too cheeky, though -- Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California canceled a Podesta fundraiser in June amid the tut-tutting over an invitation sent out by Podesta that said "the prix fixe includes the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course followed by your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees."
At last year's Democratic convention, Podesta wore a scarlet L to razz Obama for talking so much about curbing lobbyist enthusiasm. She rejected about a dozen mock-ups before settling on a Gothic-style letter, which became such a popular giveaway that she blew through 100 of them.
"Everybody was talking about it at the convention," says Podesta pal Leahy, the Senate Judiciary chairman, who says Heather is invariably "the most knowledgeable person in the room because she's done her homework."
In this Summer of the Lobbyist, Heather Podesta hits each of the big three. She's got health-care clients such as insurance giants Cigna and HealthSouth, drugmaker Eli Lilly and the breast cancer group Susan G. Komen for the Cure; financial powerhouses such as Prudential and Swiss Reinsurance Co.; and energy outfits such as Marathon Oil, the major utility Southern Co. and Climate Masters, a geothermal heating firm.
Cigna has her pushing for an employer-based health system, says the company's general counsel, Carol Petren; Eli Lilly has her bird-dogging drug regulation, especially in the "follow-on biologics" field considered promising in the fight against cancer, in hopes of "preserving incentives for innovation," says Joe Kelley, the company's vice president of government and public affairs.