Tuesday profile: Wholesaler-Distributors lobbyist helped stop overhaul of healthcare

When a Clinton administration task force headed by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a proposal mandating that employers provide healthcare to their employees, many in Washington assumed the plan would sail through a Congress controlled by Democrats.

“It was monumental,” Jade West said of the effort it took to defeat the Clinton healthcare plan. West, who was the staff director of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, worked with then-Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) on developing a strategy to defeat “Hillarycare” and rally opposition against the Clintons. 

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“It was one of those things that couldn’t be done, and was,” said West, who is now a senior vice president for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW). “Sometimes conventional wisdom about what is achievable needs to be proven wrong.”

The Clinton healthcare plan was one of many big-picture issues with which West was deeply involved during a more than 20-year Capitol Hill career on the GOP steering committee, and then the GOP policy committee. She continues to build and lead coalitions at NAW, which also focuses on the big picture.

“She’s one of those people who knows the system very well,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), with whom West served at both GOP committees. He described West as the perfect coalition-builder for conservative causes, whether she is working inside or outside government.

West also has helped to build coalitions aimed at returning GOP members to the Senate. West has led a number of fundraising teams for GOP senators over the years, and is heading a team for Sen. Norm Coleman’s (R-Minn.) reelection bid next year.

West led campaign fundraising teams for former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), who describes her as well-known and well-respected. “The two don’t always go together in Washington,” Talent said in an interview. Another key to West’s success, the former senator said, is that people like her.

“She is solidly conservative in her thoughts about government and policy,” Craig told The Hill. He called West a hard worker who “is never short of energy,” and said she inspired a confidence in staff members working for her that very few people at the top of an organization can accomplish.

Lori Otto, who worked under West at the Republican Policy Committee in 2001, said West was a conduit of information for members and staff on every issue facing GOP senators. Otto described West as the go-to person for members and congressional staff alike, able to explain why Republicans were using a certain procedure and what it would mean in terms of strategy.

Many staff members try to lean in to the huddles of senators discussing strategies on the floor to figure out what is going on and why, Otto said. West “never went after the Senate huddle, the huddle went after her,” Otto said. “She was such a trusted face. That was the most unique thing about her.” 

West joined the GOP steering committee in 1982 after serving as chairwoman of the GOP party in Arlington. The first senator she worked for was legendary Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

Helms was looking specifically for a woman, West said, and she won the senior staff position at a time when fewer women were in influential positions on the Hill.

“I think at that time in the evolution of the workplace, women were less threatening,” West said. At the time, she said, a female staffer could get male senators to go do things that a male staffer might not be able to, but noted that this has changed as the number of women in senior positions has increased.

West served several other chairmen of the steering committee before relocating with Craig when he moved to the Republican Policy Committee. She stayed there until the end of the 2002 congressional session, when Craig’s term as chairman of the committee was set to expire.

West had come to know NAW President Dirk Van Dongen, another famous GOP coalition-builder, during her years on the two GOP committees, and Van Dongen successfully recruited West to NAW. During the fight over the Clinton healthcare plan, West served as a liaison to Congress for Van Dongen, a key player in the business group coalition opposed to the plan.

“One of the things that drew me here when I left the Hill was NAW’s prominent role in building coalitions,” West said. It also provided an opportunity to lobby, but to lobby on big-picture issues instead of parochial issues, West said.  
NAW represents hundreds of distributors and suppliers dedicated to getting goods to market. Because these members cover such a broad cross-section of the economy, almost all of the issues on which NAW lobbies have tremendous breadth and depth.

“If we try to lobby on individual issues, we’re not big enough to handle it first of all, and second we might have members on both sides of the issue,” West said.

While most of NAW’s members are not household names, wholesale distribution represents a slice of the economy bigger than the retail sector, according to West. NAW also is one of the more powerful lobbing associations in town, in large part due to the connections and experience of West and Van Dongen.

This year, West is lobbying against the Employee Free Choice Act, a labor-backed effort aimed at making it easier to form unions. “That’s my primary issue right now,” West said.

NAW also is interested in tort reform legislation, and West continues to chair a tax-relief coalition created in 2001 to lobby for President Bush’s tax cuts.

In addition to lobbying on various policies confronting Congress, West will continue to push for a Republican majority in the Senate. Last year was a difficult one for Republicans and West, who worked on fundraising teams for then-Sens. Talent and George Allen (R-Va.) and GOP candidate Mike McGavick, all of whom were defeated.

Serious winds were running against Republican candidates last fall, and Talent, for one, said the fundraising team was incredibly helpful in bringing in funds and people for his campaign.

The tough losses followed a string of victories in 2002 and 2004 for the fundraising teams West worked on. Successful campaigns in those years included Talent’s runs in 2002 and 2004 and John Thune’s (R-S.D.) defeat of then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D) in 2004.

West managed Team Thune, which raised half a million dollars for his campaign. The team for Allen raised more than $1 million last year. “It’s a management tool for making sure that the folks who have money to give have a place to give it,” West said of the efforts.