TUESDAY PROFILE: Staffer-turned-star

Cindy Brown wasn’t working on Capitol Hill when the healthcare reform law passed in 2010, but she still felt a personal connection to it. As a longtime congressional staffer on healthcare policy who had made the jump to K Street, Brown said she took personal pride in the legislation, despite its flaws.

“It’s certainly something that you feel a kinship with, because it actually got across the finish line,” Brown said. “With all the good stuff that’s in it, with all of the stuff that’s not so great that’s in it, it still is a pretty amazing accomplishment.”

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Through her years of work on and off Capitol Hill, Brown has crafted a résumé worth boasting about. She’s worked at a nonprofit and in two congressional offices, drafted legislation and helped organize a political action committee. Now she’s trying her hand at lobbying for the powerhouse K Street firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.

“She understands what’s going on on the Hill and what motivates people to make certain decisions, and she’s able to communicate that in a very concise manner,” said David Castagnetti, a partner at the firm. “The simple answer is she’s a rock star.”

Brown graduated from the University of Michigan in 1989, and said her start on Capitol Hill was “stereotypical.” After earning a master’s degree in social services at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, she joined her hometown representative, former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), as a legislative assistant.

Stupak said he spotted Brown’s talents early on.

“I first noticed Cindy Brown’s enthusiasm and hard work as a volunteer on one of my early campaigns,” Stupak, now a partner at Venable, told The Hill in an email. “Cindy presents herself well, and beams with confidence and intelligence.”

Brown said she had only been working in Stupak’s office a year when she was offered the opportunity to work at the American Association of University Women. She jumped at the chance, believing it would give her a new perspective on Capitol Hill.

Working for the nonprofit taught her bedrock political skills: how to form coalitions, count votes and work with lawmakers on controversial issues.

“[They] didn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Brown said of the group.

As the years went on, Brown found herself missing Capitol Hill, and in 1999, she joined Rep. Ron Kind’s (D-Wis.) office as legislative director.

Her proudest accomplishment as a staff member was tweaking legislation that resulted in better compensation and reimbursement rates for rural hospitals. The National Rural Health Association recognized Brown’s work on the legislation for 2001, honoring her with its annual legislative staff award.

Brown was eventually promoted to Kind’s chief of staff, and became an invaluable member of his team, according to the lawmaker.

“[Cindy’s] hard work grew the ability of our [legislative] shop and I attribute much of her work to my current position on the House Ways and Means Committee,” Kind told The Hill in an email. “[She] was a strong leader in the office and a wonderful mentor to my staff.”

Working for Kind put Brown in the same orbit as the New Democrat Coalition, a group of centrist Democrats formed in 1997. She helped steer the coalition from its early beginnings at a Capitol Hill Starbucks to one of the leading legislative blocs in Congress. After work hours, she helped set up the coalition’s political action committee.

In 2009, Brown decided it was time for new challenges. She said her desire to work on a wide range of policy issues made lobbying attractive, and Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti — with its diverse client roster and bipartisan approach — seemed like a perfect fit.

She was even more confident in her decision to go with the bipartisan firm when, “lo and behold,” the House switched to a Republican majority.

“That’s also the fun of being on the outside —[in] being in a place where if there’s a hot issue on the Hill, we have clients who care about it, and so we’re involved,” Brown said.

Brown’s work at Mehlman runs the gamut from energy to technology to healthcare. Her clients include PayPal, Yahoo, the American Petroleum Institute and Chrysler Group, among others.

She said lobbying has been an invigorating challenge that lets her use her knowledge of Capitol Hill to help clients identify potential allies on legislation. She has also linked clients up with New Democrats at roundtable events. 

“If there’s an issue that is of interest to the New Dems and of interest to our clients, then it’s kind of a natural avenue to make sure that they have a chance to talk about their mutual interests,” Brown said.

Brown’s work on healthcare policy didn’t end with her arrival on K Street. One of her early accounts was with the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

She was tasked with keeping the controversial healthcare reform deal between PhRMA and the Obama administration on prescription drugs in place, although “the deal was largely struck before I came downtown.”

“We interact with the healthcare system in many roles and quite frequently,” Brown said. “So my role is still quite close to the healthcare system, and seeing how it operates behind the scenes and how the policy plays.”

Even though Brown is content in her new role, she won’t commit to being a lobbyist long-term.

“I’m only 43,” she joked. “In a perfect world I could just be a runner and run a bookstore.”

But the centrist Democrat made clear one point about her current career path: She’s still influencing policy.

“There is still a place to play out here,” Brown said.