Lobbyists are often called on to fix a problem, a nettlesome tax or disruptive regulation. But one of K. Riva Levinson’s clients found itself in a particularly tough spot: its foreign offices suffered a coup in 2001.
Western Wireless International, a telecom company based in Bellevue, Wash., had helped to pony up around $40 million to build a cell-phone network in Ivory Coast, a West African nation the size of New Mexico with meager economic growth and widespread unemployment. Levinson calls the investment a “huge contribution to development.”
“We operate in Third World and emerging countries,” CEO Brad Horwitz said. “We occasionally find ourselves on the wrong end of things.”
According to the company, a new Ivory Coast government allowed the network to be taken over by a man on a United Nations wanted list for being a gunrunner for Charles Taylor, the now-deposed Liberian dictator.
Alexander Galley and a small army stormed the company’s Ivory Coast offices, held its employees at gunpoint and raided the company’s bank account, the company says.
“We needed to get support from various constituencies in the U.S. government to basically say, ‘You can’t do this. It violates contract sanctity. It’s screwing a U.S. investor. It is a bad thing to do,’” Horwitz said.
Levinson, who works at consultant-lobbyist firm BKSH, helped Western Wireless marshal officials in the State Department and other federal agencies to strike back. Eventually, United States officials stripped Ivory Coast of any trade rights provided through the African Growth and Opportunity Act, a 2000 law highly sought after as a way to economic growth.
“She’s sort of like a pit bull on your leg,” Horwitz said of Levinson. “She doesn’t back down. She does not give up on something.”
The company remotely shut down the network. The government has denied involvement in the takeover, and the dispute is ongoing.
A mother of two with a broad smile and pleasant demeanor, Levinson may not immediately strike one as being like a pit bull — or for that matter a “bulldog,” another type of aggressive canine that another client, Kosmos Energy CEO James Mussleman, used to compare her to. Levinson had helped Kosmos, an oil exploration company, persuade the State Department to reopen its embassy in Equatorial Guinea to support Americans working in the burgeoning oil industry there. (“She gets on a task and she doesn’t let up until it gets done,” Mussleman said.)
But Levinson has probably been in trickier spots and taken up more daunting causes than all but a few other lobbyists in town. In 20 years as international lobbyist and campaign consultant to emerging democracies, Levinson has built a career that has a Forrest Gump-like quality for her habit of being there at historically important moments.
Much of her work has focused on Africa, a continent where Levinson says corruption remains as big a threat to its future as AIDS. Her work there included helping Ellen Johnson Sirleaf become president of war-torn Liberia, making her the first female president of any African nation. Levinson had helped craft the winning campaign message.
Her career began after she talked her way into a job at a political public-relations firm founded by GOP operatives Paul Manafort, Roger Stone and Lee Atwater. She soon became the “proverbial Third World traveler of choice.”
Excited to be on the front lines of history and to help people change their circumstance, “There was nowhere I wouldn’t go,” she said.
That included the Angolan bush to work with Unita, a faction fighting a communist regime backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. To gin up support for the group, Levinson flew journalists and foreign government officials from South Africa into parts of Angola that Unita controlled.
Levinson later slipped into Kashmir on a tourist visa and entered a city under siege where she advised factions — before they became “radicalized,” she says — on the need to work together to achieve independence.
“I used to barricade my door with my furniture and sleep with my passport under the pillow,” Levinson said, because she was scared Indian military forces might come and drag her away.
Both experiences were to end badly, however. In Angola, a truce was declared and free elections held. But things fell apart when Unita lost and its leader, Jonas Savimbi, refused to accept the results. He retreated into the bush to continue what became an increasingly brutal war.
Levinson was literally caught in the crossfire upon leaving a meeting at the National Electoral Commission, where she had gone to try to negotiate a way out of a brewing crisis. She was forced to duck under a U.N. vehicle to escape a firefight that had erupted.
Levinson’s relationship with Unita ended after the election. Savimbi was shot to death by government forces in 2002.
In Kashmir, Adbul Gani Lone, a moderate voice for change whom Levinson favored, was assassinated.
But there have been successes. Levinson volunteered to work with a leftist group in South Africa leading up to the first all-race election. The Azanian People’s Organization, or AZAPO, a black consciousness group, had threatened to disrupt the election with violence. But Levinson helped convince AZAPO to let the election go forward.
She arranged for actor Don Cheadle and the man he portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina,to participate in a congressional delegation to refugee camps in Chad to bring attention on the atrocities occurring in neighboring Sudan. On the trip, she became friends with Rusesabagina, who had saved more than 1,000 people in Rwanda. Appreciative of her efforts, Rusesabagina later came to speak at the elementary school Levinson’s two kids attend as way of thanks.
More controversially, Levinson and her firm also won a State Department contract to help develop a communications strategy for the Iraqi National Congress (INC) in the years before the war. Levinson spent a nervous week in Baghdad a month after Saddam Hussein’s statute was pulled down in 2003 to help the INC build a communications operation in Iraq.
Though critics accuse INC leader Ahmed Chalabi of misleading American officials about the potential danger of the Saddam Hussein regime, Levinson, who no longer works with the INC, describes him as a “patriot” who could have led an easy life but dedicated himself instead to ending Hussein’s regime.
Last summer, Levinson advised Johnson Sirleaf on her long-shot campaign to become Liberia’s president. With Liberian soccer superstar George Weah in the race, few U.S. government officials gave Johnson Sirleaf much hope of winning.
With the campaign stalled, Levinson wrote a lengthy memo describing how the campaign should be organized and what messages it should espouse.
“It was just Campaign 101,” she said. “We walked through what the organization needs to look like, the types of messages that she needed to consider and most importantly, that they couldn’t operate off a hunch. Everything they needed to look at had to be tested.”
Focusing on her experience and on the importance her administration would give to improving educational opportunities in Liberia, Johnson Sirleaf finished second in the first vote and then won in the run-off against Weah.
“Conventional wisdom doesn’t think you can go to an African community and have a message about the future and that they are going to care,” she said. “But they did. They did.”
Levinson now represents Liberia in Washington, working to get the United States to increase its financial support for the country, where as much as 80 percent of the population is unemployed.