There are many misconceptions about what it means to be a lobbyist.
Jack Abramoff– perhaps the most notorious lobbyist in American history– may have been the tipping point of those misconceptions. A highly influential figure in the Bush Administration, Abramoff was charged with multiple counts of corruption and spent four years in prison. Subsequently creating a deep mistrust of lobbyists amongst the American public.
But Courtney Snowden of DC’s Raben Group may be changing that.
On Running for Office
Before our meeting at her beautiful private office in DC’s exclusive DuPont Circle neighborhood, I expected a stiff handshake and a stiffer “I work in DC” suit. What I got was a warm welcome from a cheerful woman dressed in a stylish sundress and jean jacket.
The surprises didn’t end there. Snowden is one of the youngest Principals in her office. She’s a sixth generation Washingtonian and a product of DC Public Schools. She’s currently rocking her natural hair (a feat for most and probably the most impressive thing yet); and just recently, Courtney boldly threw her name in the race for DC Council At-Large.
“DC residents have an arms length relationship with Congress,” explains Courtney in reference to her council race. “I want to change that.”
I, however, wanted to know more about WTF a lobbyist does. (I assumed they were all fabulous, rich, and eating for free.)
On Being a Lobbyist in DC
“People tend to think of lobbyist like an old boys club in a cigar-smoked room cutting deals for big companies,” says Snowden. “But that’s not what it is.”
“It’s sitting and writing and thinking. On a typical day, I’m reading newspapers, responding to emails, making phone calls, and figuring out the best way to help my clients. Most of my day is not hanging out with congressmen and going to parties. Most of my day is doing the hard work of sifting and distilling critical information.”
“Lobbyists have a real role in solving the nation’s problems. We help change laws so people get what they need from Congress. Along the way, we get to meet people from all walks of life. It’s a great gig, but you have to be willing to do the work.”
In college, Snowden interned for Tammy Baldwin (D-WI).
“When I was in college I interned for her,” says Snowden. “Later, I sent her an invitation to my graduation. She didn’t attend, but she did offer me a job.”
So, in then Representative Tammy Baldwin’s congressional office, Snowden began her career.
“After serving as a Legislative Assistant in her office, I started working in the political department of the Human Rights Campaign,” says Snowden. “Years later, after the Clinton administration came to a close, Robert Raben, who served as Assistant Attorney General, started the Raben Group. I was the sixth employee hired.”
“Lots of people throw around the word strategy. But at The Raben Group, when we say strategic we mean it. Strategy is being crystal clear about your goal. Your strategy should be so transparent that an outsider should be able to look and see where you’re going.”
On Being Successful in This Town
So what does it take, I wondered, to be a successful lobbyist?
“I think what people don’t see is the support we provide in research and information,” says Snowden. “If you want to be a lobbyist, learn to write. I spend so much time writing.”
“I’m also a relationship builder. I can’t force someone to do something, but what I can do is make it so when I have a question or need something you will return my call. The way to do that is by being a credible source for information, and frankly by having a personality.”
“The world is getting smaller. You must be mindful of who you’re talking to. Treat everyone as if they’re the most important person in the room.”
To the bright-eyed young professionals out there, the seasoned lobbyist had this to say:
“Young professionals have so much exciting energy and creative ideas,” says Snowden. “My frustration comes when they start on day one ready to move up. The only way to be good at your craft is to study those doing it better than you. The need to watch and learn first will never go away.”