On policy under pressure

On policy under pressure
© Courtesy of Delta

Heather Wingate knows how to handle a disaster.

She was in the White House on 9/11. She was at Citigroup when the Great Recession hit.

“I think I’ve sort of cut my teeth in crisis environments,” said Wingate, whose career in government affairs and lobbying has most recently made her the senior vice president for government affairs at Delta Air Lines.

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“You really see what people are like in a crisis environment, and it becomes critically important to have strong communication internally, to have constant communication internally and to just keep your head on straight,” she told The Hill in a recent interview.

Those experiences, she says, help her navigate policy at a time when everything is political, and Delta’s policy portfolio includes a broad array of issues, many of which may not seem, at first blush, related to aviation.

Take the company’s foray into the contentious world of gun politics in the aftermath of February’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“We weren’t seeking to get involved in that issue,” Wingate said of the tragedy, which saw the company in a feud with the National Rifle Association.

“The way we got sucked into that was due to a discount that we made available for conferences, and they were advertising it on their website with our logo,” she said.

“We looked like we had some sort of corporate relationship and were endorsing the conference. That’s not where we wanted to be at the time. We didn’t want to be in the middle of that issue, so we made an attempt to step away from it. But in this environment, an attempt to step away from the issue — not take a position on the issue, but step away from it — can be a difficult thing to accomplish,” Wingate continued.

The tiff ended up with state lawmakers in Georgia dinging Delta by canceling a fuel sales tax exemption that would have benefited the Atlanta-based company. 

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Four months later, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) intervened to make sure Delta kept the exemption.

“It’s not an easy environment for corporate America,” Wingate commented.

The variety of issues a company such as Delta takes under its wings is surprisingly broad.

It seems obvious that an airline would care about the price of fuel, but Delta has also found itself concerned with the minutiae of the renewable fuel standard and the associated market governing biofuels. The reason? It bought a refinery when oil prices were through the roof and now finds itself subject to the whims of an unpredictable market for renewable energy.

It also finds itself dealing with international affairs, where U.S. allies may distort pricing through subsidies and global adversaries may demand political concessions.

This summer, at the behest of China’s state regulators, Delta, along with its competitors American Airlines and United Airlines, agreed to remove references to Taiwan as a country.

“There have always been issues with operating in China, and there are always going to be, at least for the foreseeable future. And they’re always going to have some political tinge. That’s business as usual,” said Wingate.

Wingate’s ability to navigate the cacophony of issues stems from her deep roots in the policy world.

The daughter of a political science professor, Wingate got her first taste of Washington drafting responses to constituent mail as an intern for then-Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), who at the time was the Republican leader in the Senate.

“It was some of my first taste of how the whole process works,” said the Lawrence, Kan., native. “I was fortunate to be part of that and kind of caught the bug then.”

Wingate was equally jazzed about the private sector, and after graduation she spent a year working at her step-dad’s business, Kief’s Audio/Video.

“Of course, it was very cool as a teenager to work in a record store, in a stereo store. You know, all your friends wanted to come visit. Eventually we got to eight tracks, and then cassettes,” she said.

But her post-college stint there had her dealing more with bookkeeping than the latest hit records. She felt the pressures faced by small businesses that wanted to provide health-care and retirement benefits to their employees, pay their taxes and still turn a profit.

She went off to law school and quickly made her way back to D.C. in hopes of gaining some policy experience before returning to Kansas. Instead, she rose through the ranks, becoming chief of staff to Sen. Sam Brownback (R), who would go on to become governor of Kansas.

When former President George W. Bush was elected, Wingate was offered a legislative affairs job in the White House, where she dealt with trade policy.

Two years later, ready to start a family — she and her husband have a son and a daughter — Wingate left the public sector behind and took a job in government affairs for Citigroup, where she stayed for nearly a decade before moving to MetLife for five years.

“I didn’t really have a background in financial services. There’s a Manhattan, Kansas, but it’s not anything like Manhattan, New York, you know what I’m saying?” she jokes.

Representing the financial sector in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis reinforced lessons that Wingate says are the keys to success in Washington.

“I think you first have to have credibility. You have to somehow hopefully establish that ahead of time, to be viewed as a resource for information, as a thought leader. As your company, you want to present good, solid data to the various constituencies, whether it be regulators or elected officials. So those are table stakes,” she says.

The other key, she says, is coalition-building: “You really do need to bring others along.”

But last year, when the opportunity to shake things up and take on government affairs at Delta came along, Wingate, who always had aviation in her blood, felt a calling.

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Her grandmother, Louise Derbie, was a pilot and flew with The Ninety-Nines, the female pilot’s group founded by Amelia Earhart.

On her desk, she keeps a black-and-white photo of Derbie, whom she called “MeMe,” standing in front of an airplane in full equestrian attire.

“Dad thinks I’m taking riding lessons,” reads the caption, dated 1933.

“She was such an amazing woman and showed me that I could do anything I wanted to do,” Wingate said. When Delta came along, she added, “It just felt like the stars aligning.”