Friday, June 29, 2007

Two Women – Two Decades

I’m sitting in the elegant House Ways and Means Committee room, my old stomping ground. I was an expert chart-holding staff guy who would sometimes be summoned here during hearings and sit on the dais behind my mentor, Congressman Bill Thomas, who would later became Chairman of the panel. I’d slouch in my "staff" chair and dream of setting tax policy – write-offs for football bets, clothing allowances for Hill drones, exemptions for underachievers.

Today, my current boss, a veteran of politics and one of the savviest people on health care in town, is testifying calmly and confidently, sparing with Democrats in their new found ascendancy. Suddenly there’s a tap on my shoulder and who is it but the first person to hire me in town and with whom I continue to keep in touch.

The person who tapped me on the shoulder and for my first job is Cathy Abernathy and the current boss is Leslie Norwalk. Abernathy to Norwalk – two bookends of my near two decades in politics – no big deal except for the but for the fact that both are women, both have been exceedingly successful, and between them, came a succession of strong females who were my superiors and contemporaries.

Now, I have no illusions about how women are treated or viewed sometimes in this town, or anywhere else for that matter. Washington, like the country, can be a misogynistic place, and factor in the stakes involved, i.e. power. Moreover, I confess I’m guilty of some of the locker-room behavior in this realm, despite the fact I sometimes revel in my right-wing, ex-Army, lacrosse playing, gum-chewing, caveman ways.

But in looking at Abernathy and Norwalk in the same room, I tumble to the fact that it’s been my good fortune to be serve, sycophantically so perhaps, two political women, emblematic of the way politics has evolved in Washington.

Cathy was the two-decade old chief of staff to Bill Thomas, former chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, the architect and engine behind the tax cut policies that will define this administration and this economy. Abernathy has been in the game since the 1970s, when Thomas was an obscure state legislator from central California; then, a new Member in a weak, flailing minority; then, a tactician who put the GOP in control; then, the chairman of arguably the most important committee in Congress. Yeah, he’s a remarkable guy, and yeah, he suffers no fools.

But what goes perhaps unnoticed, is the tremendous affect Abernathy had as his right-hand woman as he rose and rose and rose. I know because I saw it every day for more than 3 years. It’s impossible to describe what it takes to succeed to that level in politics -- and staff is vital. The grinding of monster egos, the subterfuge, the strategic fights, and the defeats suffered – and I’m talking about just from fights from folks in your own party. Don’t even get me started about what it takes to conquer an entrenched majority.

Abernathy was the field marshal in this crusade when there were few women on the Hill and a small handful in leadership positions. I saw what women faced -- the sheer disdain some men had about females. Always the innuendo about looks -- are they attractive, heavy set, mousy, ill-clothed – and about temperament: are these females figureheads, weak, are they pushovers, will they cry, are they dragon ladies? Abernathy made it despite the chauvinism. She could be hard as nails and I felt it smartly when I disappointed her. And yes, I took it like the simpering male I am, oh har har.

At the hearing, my current boss, Leslie Norwalk -- the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, a kind of noteworthy agency that runs the largest health care program in the world, covering 91 million Americans at a cost of of $646 billion annually-- is showing grace under pressure as Democrats try to take her and her agency apart. This is about the 9th hearing where she’s taken a pounding – nothing personal, you see, this is the way it’s played. Norwalk gives it back, poise gained during years as an attorney and a Bush 41 and 43 appointee when, as she once said, she "was always underestimated.”

Other women I’ve known and worked with in town include the late Ann Eppard, who like Abernathy, was a chief of staff to a senior member, Bud Shuster. Like Abernathy, she spent a lot of time in the wilderness with a minority member – helping him get to the House Transportation Committee chairmanship. There’s another, Suzanne Sullivan -- who like Abernathy and Eppard, was along time staffer for another chairman, Rep. Rep Norm Mineta -- who also was a top FAA aide (for another impressive female, Jane Garvey) and is now, yes, an evil lobbyist. Kathleen Harrington was another one of my bosses, a top official in the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, and a chief of staff to Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, one of the sharpest minds on health care in the entire country.

Every one of them brought a similar leadership style to the job – overpowering knowledge, politeness, a bit of breeziness and a larger bit of steel – succeeding in a town that, admittedly, has grown a bit more mature. And the interesting thing is, the hearing room in which Abernathy, Norwalk and I sit is jammed with women; yes, some of them venal lobbyists, but others who are advocates, staff and yep, Members.

Take it from this certified knuckle-dragger that times have changed. Because it wasn’t like this 19 years ago when Abernathy and I were sitting side-by-side in these chairs and I was dreaming of my special exemption.....


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