Heather Podesta: It Girl

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Commonsense rule #1 for influence peddlers: Don’t flaunt it.

The poster child for what happens when you do is Michael Deaver, who posed in the back of a limo for this magazine’s cover in 1986. It didn’t have quite the effect he might have hoped:

“Who’s This Man Calling?” the headline asked, then answered: “Influence Peddling in Washington.” In case Deaver wasn’t recognized, his name was printed over his knee.

That was the moment when Deaver’s rags-to-riches life combusted. Popular opinion demanded a crackdown on Washington’s business-as-usual practices. The news media and a Democratic Congress obliged, targeting a close friend of the Republican president who was seen as cashing in on his access.

Within months, stories implying that Deaver used his Oval Office connections for monetary gain abounded. One said that he had lobbied the director of the Office of Management and Budget on behalf of Rockwell International over the B-1 bomber; others alleged that he had signed a $105,000 contract to represent the Canadian government six days after leaving the White House. Columnist William Safire called Deaver “Reagan’s Billy Carter.”

That’s why I’m wondering what the fallout will be from today’s enormous Washington Post Style Section profile of Heather Podesta, whom the paper describes as “an It Girl in a new generation of young, highly connected, built-for-the-Obama-era lobbyists. She gets an undeniable boost from a famous name — she is the sister-in-law of John Podesta, the insider’s insider who was Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and Obama’s transition director, and the wife of ├╝ber-lobbyist Tony Podesta.”

The opening photo of the story shows Podesta posed next to a Shepard Fairey image of her husband done up to look like the iconic one of Obama that made Fairey famous during the 2008 campaign. And it gets worse:

At last year’s Democratic convention, Podesta wore a scarlet L to razz Obama for talking so much about curbing lobbyist enthusiasm. She rejected about a dozen mock-ups before settling on a Gothic-style letter, which became such a popular giveaway that she blew through 100 of them.

“Everybody was talking about it at the convention,” says Podesta pal Leahy, the Senate Judiciary chairman, who says Heather is invariably “the most knowledgeable person in the room because she’s done her homework.”

In this Summer of the Lobbyist, Heather Podesta hits each of the big three. She’s got health-care clients such as insurance giants Cigna and HealthSouth, drugmaker Eli Lilly and the breast cancer group Susan G. Komen for the Cure; financial powerhouses such as Prudential and Swiss Reinsurance Co.; and energy outfits such as Marathon Oil, the major utility Southern Co. and Climate Masters, a geothermal heating firm.

Cigna has her pushing for an employer-based health system, says the company’s general counsel, Carol Petren; Eli Lilly has her bird-dogging drug regulation, especially in the “follow-on biologics” field considered promising in the fight against cancer, in hopes of “preserving incentives for innovation,” says Joe Kelley, the company’s vice president of government and public affairs.

There’s so much work, in fact, that certain painful sacrifices are required. The couple used to escape to the beloved retreat they own in Venice 10 or 12 times a year, but “now we only maybe get there six times a year,” Heather Podesta says. Leaving Washington doesn’t always really mean leaving Washington. In Venice they’ve hosted, among others, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, though she was a mere governor back then, and hung with, by Podesta’s count, something like 20 members of Congress (Nevada Rep. Shelley Berkley, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, even Teddy Kennedy).

The story also quotes Podesta as saying: “This is a very good time to be a Democratic lobbyist . . . it’s incredibly exciting to be able to engage with Democrats and really see things happen. It’s always a good time to be Heather Podesta.”