Lobbying lessons from jiujitsu

Lobbying lessons from jiujitsu
© Greg Nash

While some lobbyists think of Washington, D.C., as a brutal battlefield, Suzanne Beall, vice president of government relations for the International Franchise Association (IFA), sees it as a jiujitsu mat: Keep a close grip on your opponents, learn to roll with the hits, ride momentum in your favor and the victories will follow.

Beall says she leans on lessons learned from competing in Brazilian jiujitsu matches while lobbying for the IFA’s more than 1,400 members on labor and tax issues affecting the franchise business industry.


“If I want to win, I have to have grips and I have to have closeness,” Beall said in an interview with The Hill this month. “Using leverage and technique to overcome bigger, stronger opponents is the only way that we’ll make gains.”

Beall has led the IFA’s Democratic lobbying efforts since December 2017, focusing primarily on the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) efforts to revamp the joint-employer standard. That rule decides when a company is liable for labor violations committed by a subcontractor, affecting a massive portion of franchises and their franchisees.

Under former President Obama, the NLRB sought to apply the rule in situations where companies had “indirect” control over another business’s employees or “reserved authority to do so.”

The IFA has fought against the rule’s application to indirect control situations, arguing it would make franchisors joint-employers with their franchisees.

The NLRB, now led by Trump appointees, last fall kicked off a rulemaking process intended to create a new standard that only applied to companies with “substantial, direct and immediate control” of another firm’s employees.

A self-described social liberal and fiscal conservative, Beall said her martial arts experience has helped her navigate disparate spaces in Washington, advocating for businesses while seeking consensus with liberals.

Beall started training in martial arts in 2006 while in law school at University of the District of Columbia. It began as way to blow off steam and keep herself active but became a lifelong passion once she discovered jiujitsu.

“It’s a way for a smaller, tiny opponent that has no physical strength in many cases to overcome a larger opponent using momentum and leverage against the bigger opponent,” Beall said.

“There’s a reason why you see 110-pound women overcoming 250-pound men all the time.”

Beall said had been training 10 hours each week before she and her wife started having children, and she still competes in international tournaments.

She took bronze in her weight class and division at the 2018 World Master International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Championship and plans to compete at a tournament in Long Beach, Calif., this summer.

Beall said martial arts have also helped her overcome fears of how she’d be perceived in various communities.

“I think there’s a natural, and this comes from both sides of the aisle, maybe a distrust of somebody like me because I don’t work for a nonprofit or one of the typical Dem groups, and a lot of Republicans know IFA hired me as their Democrat,” Beall said.

“And it goes both ways. I had to get over my own intimidation of what I’ve heard about Republicans and lobbyists downtown.”

Beall has spent her career in Washington navigating between the worlds of progressive politics and business advocacy. She was a fellow at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in law school and then a legislative aide for former Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.) before moving to K Street in 2012.

She kicked off her career in government relations with the National Association of Home Builders, where she served as federal legislative director until she joined IFA in January 2017 as an assistant vice president.

“I feel like I do more for the gay community working in the business environment than I did at HRC or one of these nonprofits because I’m talking to people who aren’t exposed to gay people, and they get to see me and I get to see them as people,” Beall said.

“Once I got over my own self and my own fears, there was no daylight between us.”

“There’s not a lot of gay lobbyists that work on behalf of business downtown, particularly in the labor space, so I feel like I’ve found a really niche market where I can walk into any congressional office and play whatever role to build that relationship based on either business or a progressive office.”

Beall said she’s applied what she’s learned on the jiujitsu mat to the halls of Congress and downtown boardrooms. She emphasized the importance of give and take in relationships with lawmakers and other business trades, earning humility through losses, and using momentum to secure wins.

“We have to be creative and think about 3D chess and how we can get ahead of them,” Beall said.

Updated 8:28 a.m.