Kirsten Chadwick, one of the best vote counters on K Street

A good vote counter is surprisingly rare.

Among the army of lobbyists in this town who talk up their influence on Capitol Hill, few actually have the patience, the brutal honesty and the personal relationships to count votes with precise accuracy.

Kirsten Chadwick is one of the few.

Chadwick, a partner at Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, has been the lead Republican vote counter on every trade bill to move across Capitol Hill since she left the White House at the end of 2003.

Her talents are such that even House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) respects her counsel.

“Kirsten knows a lot of the members and understands political dynamics in a way that a lot of people who work downtown with a more narrow scope don’t,” Blunt said.

Chadwick worked closely with Blunt and his staff on one of his heaviest lifts as whip, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which eked through the House last summer despite strong opposition from Democratic leaders and the outspoken reluctance of labor-friendly Republicans.

Chadwick was the lead Republican vote counter for the business community on the CAFTA vote and helped organize coalition efforts for Blunt and the small group of deputy whips working to pass that bill.

“On trade issues, she has a mastery of the policy issues behind a trade agreement,” Blunt said. “This combination of policy expertise with member relationships makes her so good at what she does.”

During her time in Washington, Chadwick has carved out a particular expertise at passing trade bills.

In addition to CAFTA, Chadwick led White House efforts to pass Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in 2002 when she worked in the administration’s office of legislative affairs. Because TPA established rules for the negotiation and approval of free trade agreements during the Bush presidency, Chadwick has become an essential figure in marshaling that legislation through Congress.

She owes at least some part of her expertise at counting votes to one of her first mentors in Washington: Citigroup’s Nick Calio.

A native of the Boston area, Chadwick began her political career during the latter days of the first Bush administration — right after graduating from Penn State University — as an intern, before becoming an executive assistant to Calio, who was then the director of legislative affairs.

When Calio started his own firm, O’Brien & Calio, in 1993, he brought Chadwick along to be a researcher, receptionist and junior lobbyist. Calio, who is now Citigroup’s senior vice president for global government affairs, said he recognized her talents early and quickly increased her responsibilities in the office.

“She has incredible instincts about politics and about people,” Calio said. “The basis for her success is that she knows and likes people, which is what lobbying is all about.”

Chadwick spent the next eight years at the firm, building relationships with the members and their staffs on Capitol Hill. She moved to the White House’s legislative shop in January 2001, after Calio was tapped to run that office.

During her time at O’Brien & Calio, Chadwick developed a familiarity with trade issues, working on bills such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, for which the firm was the business community’s lead vote counter.

Chadwick built on that experience during her time in the White House, where she led the administration efforts to pass TPA, the 2003 tax cut and free trade deals with Chile, Jordan and Singapore. At Fierce-Isakowitz, she led coalition efforts on behalf of the Business Roundtable to pass CAFTA and represented the country of Bahrain in its trade deal with the U.S., and she now represents Peru in a trade deal that is still pending before Congress.

With TPA expiring at the end of June, the window is closing for the administration to negotiate these deals. That could mean a very busy year for Chadwick if Republicans hold the House. A Democratic takeover, however, could imperil some pending deals because Democrats have been so defiant on trade issues under Bush, as evidenced by the tight vote on CAFTA.

“I think CAFTA was a tough vote for everybody,” Chadwick said. “It showed we’re in a much harder political atmosphere [for trade bills].”

Despite this emphasis on trade, Chadwick has also worked other major legislation. Her first really tough vote in the White House was the president’s No Child Left Behind bill, which passed despite broad opposition from conservative Republicans, including then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

“That was the first bill, and it was tough,” Chadwick said.

The key to counting votes is to hear what the member is saying, not what a lobbyist or client — or the president — might want the member to say, Calio, Chadwick and others said.

As a big vote approaches, members are often overwhelmed by pressure from their leaders, their constituents and coalition lobbyists on either side of an issue. In that environment, it becomes difficult to get honest information from those members who are undecided.

In that regard, Chadwick has an uncanny ability to glean which direction the member is leaning and then deliver her stark assessments in a tone the leaders or her clients can swallow a little easier.

“It’s really about her personality,” said Steve Champlin, a lobbyist with The Duberstein Group who has worked closely with Chadwick as the lead Democratic vote counter on a number of major trade bills over the years. “She is very realistic. She never indulges the client with shady assessments.”

Despite her forthrightness, Chadwick is never bossy or condescending, Champlin said. “She gives people very clear information, and she’s cheery about it.”

Through all those tough votes, Chadwick has had her moments of extreme doubt, and over the years she has learned a few things about the importance of a deadline.

For example, in 2002, the Monday before August recess, she was nervous the House would not vote on TPA, which was then stuck in conference negotiations between leaders in the House and Senate, before members left for the summer. That night she was on the floor and expressed her concerns to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).

“We are going to get this bill this week,” Thomas told her.

The chairman, who is also a solid vote counter, was true to his word and brought the bill to the floor three days later, when the House approved it, 215-212.

Chadwick’s patience stems from the trust she has engendered from patiently building relationships over time.

“I think she’s one of the best in town,” said Calio, who takes great pride in the success of his former assistant. “She understands the golden rule of a good lobbyist: Don’t just call somebody when you want something.”