By Kevin Bogardus - 06/26/12 09:00 AM EDT
Holly Fechner has received a first-class Washington education. Having spent eight years in the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) employ, Fechner was a key cog in the Senate legend’s machine that kept the upper chamber in motion, churning out bill after bill.
That time — as policy director for Kennedy, as well as his chief labor and pensions counsel for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — has led to Fechner helping run one of the best law firm lobby practices in town at Covington & Burling.
“He was the master. He was really the master,” Fechner told The Hill.
She described how Kennedy would work constantly to win support for his causes, including many she worked on, such as raising the minimum wage and reforming the pension system. Fechner, 49, noted how the liberal lion would carry a list of all the senators he needed to talk to for different issues and take every opportunity to give a Senate floor speech.
“It was always so fun, because often the chamber was very empty,” Fechner said. “That didn’t make any difference to him. He was speaking, certainly, to the broader audience out in the country, but also I loved seeing all the pages come in and sit down and watch him give a speech. … A lot of times, by the end of it, he was drenched in sweat, because he just would throw his whole self into it.”
After leaving Capitol Hill in February 2007, Fechner came to Covington and is now co-chairwoman of the firm’s government affairs practice group. The practice draws on the giant law firm’s expertise across several issue areas, having 36 registered lobbyists.
Representing clients via traditional lobbying as well as in more arcane regulatory and legal work in Washington has worked well for Covington. The firm posted solid revenue in lobbying fees for 2011, taking in $11.2 million. That’s a 10 percent jump from 2010, while many on K Street saw their lobbying earnings plateau or fall last year.
Covington’s clients include many big-name corporations — such as Amazon, Microsoft and Qualcomm — and well-known brands like the National Football League, according to lobbying disclosure records.
Fechner is among a coterie of former Kennedy aides — like Tony Podesta of Podesta Group and Nick Allard of Patton Boggs — who now help run K Street. A University of Michigan Law School graduate, Fechner loves the law but appreciates the unique challenge presented by lobbying.
“I find combining the substantive and the political very interesting,” she said.
Fechner has earned a reputation in Washington for working hard and being well-prepared— attributes that were honed as a Kennedy aide.
Tamera Luzzatto, a former chief of staff to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), remembers seeing Fechner sitting on the staff couches just behind Kennedy’s desk in the Senate chamber. Fechner would be assisting Kennedy with his speeches, often on a Friday afternoon, helping him articulate his issues when everybody else wanted to go home.
“There was Holly, with her stacks and her charts and her talking points,” Luzzatto said. “He was a machine and she was a big part of his machine. You could almost say that in the Senate, she was one of the best engines for that machine.”
Luzzatto, now managing director of government relations at the Pew Charitable Trusts, said Fechner would know whatever issue she was working on “absolutely cold,” which won respect from Republicans, too.
“Sen. Kennedy would be launching mortar rounds from the Senate floor at us, and Holly would be on the phone, calmly and constructively expressing their concerns and suggesting a pathway forward,” said Steven Law, once a deputy secretary at the Labor Department during the Bush administration. “Overall, we actually had a great relationship with Chairman Kennedy, and Holly was the key to that.”
Law, now president and CEO of American Crossroads, said Fechner “has a gift that is in short supply in Washington: She’s able to appreciate the viewpoint of those on the other side, even if she feels very strongly about her own position. Paradoxically, it’s one of the things that makes her such an effective advocate for whatever issue she’s advancing.”
In 1991, Fechner, now married with one child, first came to work in Washington on a fellowship at the National Partnership for Women and Families. The Oberlin College graduate worked on the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
“It was amazing to come to D.C. and be involved with legislation that was historic and happening right before my eyes,” Fechner said.
She would later enter private law practice and do stints at the Labor Department during the Clinton administration and as legislative counsel for the AFL-CIO.
Working at the nation’s largest labor federation “was a great education for me in the business of lobbying,” Fechner said.
“They are shoe-leather lobbyists. I learned a lot about a huge array of House and Senate offices. We went door to door a lot, sort of your old-fashioned version of lobbying, and learned a lot of the back-stories on so many of the members and what was significant in terms of getting the kind of vote count we needed on different issues,” Fechner said.
Fechner left the AFL-CIO to join Kennedy’s staff on Capitol Hill. One of her many assignments was helping to arrange expert briefings for the senator, including those that would lead to the healthcare reform law.
Fechner is now working on the law’s many regulations for clients. She said agencies are not backing off despite the uncertainty from the looming Supreme Court decision that could overturn it.
“I think people thought more would be on hold, but I really do see the regulatory agencies moving full steam ahead. I think it’s because they really don’t have any choice,” Fechner said. “I think they will be ready no matter what happens with the Supreme Court.”