From Kennedy’s foot soldier to lobbyist, Kim tells his story

There’s more than one way to get things done in Washington. Bare-knuckles politics can be effective. You also could master a policy area and wield your expertise to get results.

Or you could stand up big pictures of disfigured feet on the Senate floor. That could work too.

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It did for former aide Paul Kim, who worked for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in the 1990s. Kennedy, the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, was fighting off some colleagues’ attempts to expand the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) authority to regulate cosmetics and preempt state agencies.

Kim, now a partner at the law and lobbying firm Foley Hoag, laughs as he tells the story of the unlikely, but successful, strategy.

Kennedy was trying to illustrate the rare but serious harm that cosmetic products can pose. He wanted to make the case that tinkering with the status quo would give to the FDA responsibilities the states were better equipped to handle.

“We blew these giant pictures up of people who had been horribly disfigured or injured by cosmetics,” Kim explains. “He’d be railing on … and in the meantime these pictures were just in the background. Occasionally, we would just change them.

“We kept the feet on for a long time,” he added.

The gruesome images grabbed the attention of the C-SPAN-viewing public. “The phones started lighting up,” says Kim, and Kennedy ultimately won that battle.

Sensationalism isn’t Kim’s defining characteristic, though. Kim played an important substantive role in getting that FDA bill passed, said David Nexon, a longtime Kennedy aide who now is senior executive vice president of the Advanced Medical Technology Association.

“He made a terrific contribution to that legislation” and to other bills, Nexon said.

Kim also is an eminently likeable fellow, colleagues said.

“He’s incredibly smart, but the thing that makes him stand out … in this town is that he’s nice,” said John Coster, a former Hill staffer who is the vice president of policy and programs at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. “He’s not full of himself.”

During 15 years as a Senate aide, a House aide, an FDA official and a lobbyist, Kim has developed a reputation as an expert on food and drug law.

But despite a successful career as a lobbyist that grew out of his experience working for prominent legislators such as Kennedy, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and then-Sen. David Pryor (D-Ark.), his private-sector experience for a pharmaceutical company and his degrees from prestigious universities, Kim says he was never carrying out a master strategy or a “five-year plan.”

Kim set out on a different path when he began his undergraduate studies at Harvard University: He was going to be a doctor. A brush with organic chemistry was all it took to turn him into a “failed pre-med,” he says.

“I took orgo. Failed it. I called my parents and said, ‘You know what? I’m going to try something else.’”

Kim settled on studying the history of science. He wanted to stay close to science, which is not surprising given that both his father and brother are physicians and research scientists. His mother also works in a laboratory. “I’m kind of a black sheep,” he joked.

Kim developed his taste for policy, and his interest in Washington, during his master’s degree studies at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

What happened next might have shaken some people’s interest in public service.

As he prepared to finish his master’s in 1990, Kim applied for the Presidential Management Intern (PMI) program, which places recent master’s and doctoral graduates in federal agency jobs.

As if to confirm a stereotype, the bureaucrats blew it. “I actually got rejected by the PMI because they actually screwed up the scoring,” he said. In fact, a slew of applicants got erroneous rejections that year, Kim added.

Disappointed, he moved on and took a job with the pharmaceutical company Ciba-Geigy in Switzerland, where he stayed for two years. “It was a hard left turn on the career path. I didn’t expect it but I’m so glad I did it.”

Eventually, the PMI folks got back in touch and he was on his way to the FDA in 1992.

Within months, the agency loaned him out on a fellowship to Kennedy’s committee staff, where he served for more than a year.

“You never forget your first day. I don’t think I had been to Congress for years, since I was an elementary school student [on a field trip],” he said. “You had this sense of the energy.”

He left Kennedy’s committee to join Pryor’s Aging Committee staff, where he worked from 1994 to 1996. A stopover as a lobbyist with the American Foundation for AIDS Research was cut short when a position opened up in Waxman’s office in 1997. Kim worked for Waxman for more than three years before being detailed to Kennedy’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee staff. There he remained for two years, eventually becoming deputy staff director for health policy.

During his time on the Hill, Kim also earned a law degree at the Georgetown University Law Center, which he completed in 1998 after three and a half years of night school.

“I’ve been really lucky with the members I’ve worked for,” Kim says. “All of them, I feel like, in our own field, [are] exceptional leaders, unqualified champions of universal access and public health, and just wonderful individuals, too.”

But in 2003, Kim decided it was time to leave. “The two principal reasons were David and Maya,” his twin children who had just been born. Kim and his wife already had a 4-year-old daughter, Anna.

“The lifestyle [on the Hill] was difficult to reconcile with my responsibilities as a parent. A lot of people manage … but for me it was the right time to do something new,” he says.

Kim says he was ready for a new challenge. He turned for advice to his old boss, Nick Littlefield, who had been the HELP Committee’s staff director until 1997, when he returned to Foley Hoag’s Boston office after eight years on the Hill.

Littlefield’s experience made Kim feel like he could make the transition. “He was doing really interesting things in health policy for life-science clients and showed that you could be creative and you could be a problem solver,” said Kim. “You
could be working on the same policy threads and the same issues and be doing good and enjoy yourself.”

The biggest adjustment to starting out in lobbying, Kim says, is when “you realize you’re not the center of a network. … You’re on the outside looking in.” Focusing on policy helped him adapt, he said.

One of his biggest responsibilities is to pull back the curtain to show his clients how Washington works. “There’s a feeling that what’s happening is vastly important to them, but it’s happening through a pane of glass, impenetrable,” Kim says. At the same time, “You’ll be surprised at the number of times that clients will educate you.”