Building coalitions at a bipartisan boutique

When Janet Mullins Grissom first arrived in Washington at age 29, she was a single mom with one young daughter and a tricky mission: Get a job on Capitol Hill in just one week.

Craving real-world experience to complement her graduate courses in international economics at American University, Grissom set her sights on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then she met the committee receptionist, a Stanford alumnus and Ph.D. candidate, and Grissom quickly moved to Plan B.

Patrick G. Ryan
Janet Mullins Grissom


“I told them I could take dictation, which I couldn’t, but I figured I could learn,” she recalled. And she learned quickly, building up political experience and acumen that eventually carried her to the State Department, the White House and top echelons of K Street, where she now belongs to the bipartisan firm Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart.

After coming to D.C., Grissom spent her first weeks in a Northern Virginia campground in the area that is now the bustling business corridor of Tysons Corner. But within three years after coming to the capital, she had risen from legislative correspondent to chief of staff in the office of former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Though she worked with Packwood more than a decade before the sexual-harassment scandal that led to his expulsion from Congress, Grissom said she was not surprised at the former conference chairman’s downfall.

It was Packwood’s term as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, however, that helped Grissom get acquainted with a county judge and senatorial aspirant named Mitch McConnell. Soon after leaving Packwood’s office and returning to her hometown of Louisville, Grissom signed on to manage McConnell’s long-shot campaign.

“At that time he wasn’t even on the charts in the polls,” Grissom said. “It was quite a gamble, but I didn’t do it because I thought he was going to win.” Rather, she said, the rare appearance of a worthwhile Republican candidate in Kentucky, then a Democratic bastion, led her to join McConnell’s team.

Propelled by energetic, creative campaign tactics — McConnell volunteers packed the audience during a crucial speech by incumbent Dee Huddleston and displayed huge signs proclaiming “Switch to Mitch” — the current majority whip became the only GOP senatorial challenger to prevail in 1984. Grissom later became McConnell’s chief of staff, giving her a unique perspective on what drives the presumptive future majority leader of the Senate.

“People tend to underestimate him. Dee Huddleston underestimated him,” Grissom observed, noting that McConnell is “more subtle than some of his colleagues. ... He’s a guy who takes risks. He will stake out a position whether it’s popular or unpopular.”

Grissom came to appreciate McConnell’s subtle style and ability to take risks and those traits have similarly marked her career path since leaving the Hill with the distinction of being the first woman to serve as chief of staff to two senators. She forged ties to a powerful Democratic leadership as the State Department’s congressional liaison under President George H.W. Bush, moving on to head federal lobbying for Ford Motor Co. at a time of landmark restructuring in the auto industry.

Mark Salter, chief of staff to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), befriended Grissom when she was known by her maiden name, Mullins, before her marriage to former Medicare official Tom Grissom. Grissom and McCain maintain close ties to this day as fellow board members of the International Republican Institute.

“She’s extremely smart, able, and is always the adult in the room,” Salter said. “Up on the Hill, there’s not always an easy supply of that.”

Grissom said her years with former secretary of state and longtime Bush family adviser James Baker “shaped my views about government relations and lobbying,” teaching her the importance of a bipartisan approach even as policymaking grew more ideologically intense. Grissom said her method of navigating the political terrain for Ford remained constant from the time she joined the company in 1995, just after the GOP’s House takeover, through the tire-safety firestorm of 2001 and until her departure from the carmaker two years ago.

Working in the legislative and executive branches, Grissom added, “people always tell you how messed up government is, how well-run it is on the private-sector side.” But soon after Grissom crossed over to Ford, she realized that corporate lobbying “is just like being in government,” with similar logistical challenges accompanying the broad swath of issues on which she found herself becoming an instant expert.

Indeed, Grissom’s full plate at Ford touched on energy, taxes, environmental measures, pension regulation and even general financial services through the company’s Ford Credit arm. Her first career-defining challenge came in 1999, when Grissom spearheaded the creation of the Auto Alliance (now known as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers), the first industry trade association with both domestic and foreign-owned members.

The emergence of Toyota as a rival to the Big Three of Ford, GM and Chrysler, as well as the merger of U.S.-based Chrysler with German Daimler-Benz, convinced Grissom and her colleagues that car manufacturers needed to speak with one voice. They disbanded the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, whose last president was former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, and created the new Alliance.

“We tried really hard to redefine the auto industry in this town because, frankly, there wasn’t a lot of sympathy in the Republican Congress for the Big Three,” Grissom said. The new congressional majority, she said, perceived automakers as overly union-driven.

Her experience creating the Alliance awakened Grissom to the lobbying potential of trade associations and coalitions, highly mobile partnerships of trade groups and businesses that tend to lobby exclusively on a single measure of shared importance. Grissom has continued to seek common ground among corporate competitors since coming to Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart, a marriage of two successful firms from both sides of the aisle.

Starting a lobbying coalition that combines public affairs, management and strategy in one operation, Grissom said, “is like running a campaign. Once the job is done, you go away. They are the wave of the future, and very, very important to how this town works.”

Grissom now helps lead the credit-card industry’s lobbying effort to preserve its right to interchange fees, small charges added to every credit-card transaction that cover business expenses. To counter retail groups, campaign to kill interchange fees, her shop assembled the Electronic Payments Coalition on behalf of credit-card giants such as Visa, Discover and MasterCard, which is also a separate client.

Among Grissom’s other clients are insurance company ACE INA, the Federation of American Hospitals and seniors’ group AARP. Though several firms courted Grissom after she left the auto industry, Johnson, Madigan et al. — steered by Democratic heavyweights David Johnson and Patrick Griffin and Republican veterans Michael Boland and Peter Madigan — won out partly because of its dramatic difference from her former employer.

“I wanted a boutique firm that wasn’t owned by some faceless, nameless corporation,” Grissom said. “I looked for the kind of firm I had hired” as an outside consultant during her Ford years. Boland and Madigan, in fact, are former Auto Alliance lobbyists, and Madigan previously worked with Grissom at the State Department.

Washington’s biennial shift into campaign mode has narrowed lawmakers’ focus and sent Grissom onto defense, rather than offense. A smattering of bills continue to show potential for aggressive lobbying on behalf of her clients, including the reconstituted Senate asbestos-litigation bill and the “cheeseburger” food-liability bill, which the House passed last fall but remains stalled in the Senate.

“There is a lot of activity out there, even though Congress doesn’t look like they’re getting a lot done,” Grissom said. “Folks are positioning themselves” for action on pet issues once the next session begins.

And Grissom, when she can find a few spare minutes, is positioning herself for a homecoming of sorts. She and Tom Grissom, also from Louisville, are building a cabin in Kentucky to serve as a recess refuge for the four children and two grandchildren in their combined family.