Power, Influence and Sex Appeal

Case of Vicki Iseman, McCain illustrates challenges faced by female lobbyists.


Feb. 22, 2008 — -- "Relying on the deference usually paid to the sex, they thrust themselves in where the most venturesome man would be repulsed; and once obtaining the official ear they plead their cause with a pertinacity that will not be denied." -- Anonymous

When female lobbyists, known as wire-pullers, first started to appear in the White House in 1866 when Andrew Johnson was president, they were often considered more influential than their male peers. There was a "growing inclination to use the gentler sex in manipulating the political wires," according to newspaper accounts cited in "The Story of the White House" by Esther Singleton.

Since then, lobbying is one area in which Washington has lost much of its sexist attitude and brought thousands of respected women to the field.

But, as the case of Vicki Iseman's controversial relationship with Sen. John McCain illustrates, women still need to walk a fine line when it comes to currying favor with male politicians, especially at the state level.

Iseman, a lobbyist for telecommunications companies, was told by McCain advisers, who "were convinced that the relationship had become romantic," to stay away from the senator in 2000, according to yesterday's explosive story in The New York Times. McCain has vehemently denied that their relationship was less than professional.

The accusation against Iseman did not surprise some female lobbyists, who acknowledged that gender dynamics in Washington are complicated and sometimes force them to carefully calibrate their meetings with congressmen and their male staff members.

"There are always comments," says one longtime lobbyist who requested anonymity. "If someone didn't grab your butt once a week, you were like 'What's wrong with me?' When you walk into a room, they say, 'Well our day just brightened up.' In my own judgment, you have to sort of roll with it. If you don't, you're a feminist bitch that no one wants to work with. You don't want to send the wrong signal."

She says that female lobbyists are expected to make themselves attractive. "Attractive but not slutty," she says. "I know plenty of big old fat guys who are successful lobbyists. I don't know any fat successful women lobbyists. Everyone I know who's successful looks the part."

More than one-third of lobbyists in Washington are women, according to research cited by Denise Benoit Scott, the author of "The Best Kept Secret: Women Corporate Lobbyists, Policy & Power in the United States."

The number of corporate lobbyists grew by 100 percent in the 1980s, according to Scott, but men still far outnumber women such as Iseman among "hired guns" who work at lobbying firms.

And she says they are commanding more respect. "In the past, they stood out, and they weren't taken as seriously," Scott says. "I don't think that's so much the case anymore."

Ann Wexler, who is considered the first lobbyist in D.C. to run her own firm, insists that she has not experienced sexism or discrimination in her 27 years on the job.

"The idea that there is this big sexist thing or that you have to do something less professional than men to make it is just a myth," she says. "It's not a gender thing, and I don't think it ever has been."

Yet women still have to be conscious of appearances during their meetings with male politicians or staff members, Benoit says.

"It is obviously more of a problem for women, so they have to be cognizant that they could be perceived that way, as having other relations going on than business."

And women lobbyists have had plenty of reasons to be wary of men on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Bob Packwood was pressured to resign in 1995 after allegations emerged that he'd sexually assaulted at least 10 female lobbyists and staff members. In 2000, former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Thomas was forced to write a letter denying that his affair with a health care lobbyist was a conflict of interest. And Rep. Arlan Stangeland claimed that there was nothing romantic about the several hundred long-distance phone calls he made to or from the residences of a female lobbyist in 1986 and 1987.

Outside Washington, the atmosphere might be even more risky for female lobbyists.

"Everyone I know who's a state lobbyist has a million stories," says the longtime lobbyist. "You get these used-car salesmen and all of a sudden, they get elected and people are calling them chairman and all these cute women are so polite to them."

She recounts the stories of colleagues who talked about state politicians locking the door during their meetings and coming on to them. "And they're thinking, 'What do I do now? How did I get in this situation?'"

Earlier this month, Michael Garcia, the House assistant majority leader in Colorado, resigned amid allegations that he'd exposed himself to a female lobbyist and made lewd comments to her.

The woman told The Denver Post that she was playing pool with Garcia at a bar when he exposed himself to her and said, "Wouldn't this be nice inside of you?"

Upon resigning, Garcia issued a statement saying "Initial press reports are highly inaccurate regarding my alleged conduct. The other party and I engaged in consensual conduct that was inappropriate given my position in the legislature and the fact that the other party is a lobbyist."

The practice is common enough that it has been used as a tool of political gamesmanship.

In 1994, Kansas state representative Melvin Neufeld was accused of blackmailing fellow representative Richard Alldritt into voting a certain way on a bill.

"You're voting with us this time," Neufeld allegedly told Alldritt. "We know you were caught up in the [fifth floor] lounge in a compromising position with two [female] lobbyists earlier this evening. You're voting green or we'll call your wife," according to legal papers filed in the case.

Alldritt denied the accusation, and Neufeld acknowledged making the call but said he wasn't trying to blackmail Alldritt. Neufeld never went to trial after a Kansas Supreme Court majority ruled that the discussion was privileged.

And Virginia House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. reportedly paid lobbyist Jennifer L. Thompson at least $100,000 to settle her complaint that he groped her in her office in the summer of 2001.

Wilkins, who denied the allegations, ended up resigning under pressure from state leaders, including then-Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine.

Kaine told The Washington Post that several female lobbyists had told him about receiving unwelcome sexual advances from Democrats and Republicans.

"It's a serious problem," Kaine told the paper. "It's happened a lot, but with a small percentage of legislators. There are some who just don't get it."

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