Politics

Rising Stars 2017: Advocates

On the front lines in a new era

Seven advocates made the CQ Roll Call’s list of Rising Stars of 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

All this week, CQ Roll Call has been looking at 17 Rising Stars of 2017 — people who will now wield power and influence in a Washington that has been turned upside down by the presidency of Donald Trump.

Some of the names are familiar, others have recently burst on the scene. They include members of Congress, congressional and administration staffers, and advocates.

Our final installment focuses on seven advocates to look out for in 2017.

Meredith McGehee | Amanda Nguyen | David Cole | Sarah Chamberlain | Norbert Michel | Lindsay Fryer | Collin O’Mara

This story first appeared in the March 20, 2017 issue of CQ Magazine.

Meredith McGehee

Meredith McGehee recently joined Issue One, a group pushing for new campaign finance and ethics policies. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Meredith McGehee recently joined Issue One, a group pushing for new campaign finance and ethics policies. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)

BY KATE ACKLEY

CQ ROLL CALL

The Trump presidency has put government ethics in the spotlight, but that’s where the issue has been for decades for Meredith McGehee.

“I was doing ethics before ethics was cool,” says the 61-year-old McGehee, who recently joined Issue One, a group whose bipartisan board of former elected officials is pushing for new campaign finance and ethics policies.

Her experience lobbying lawmakers of both parties since the late 1980s, she says, provides her a unique opportunity to offer analysis on what the current laws are and when President Donald Trump, or anyone else, may cross the line.

Trump has repeated the mantra that a president is not subject to a conflict of interest law that covers his Cabinet and other officials, but McGehee says he’s taking his interpretation too far.

“To say the president can’t have a conflict of interest is just ridiculous on its face,” she says, because he is subject to federal election, financial disclosure and anti-nepotism laws.

The president, she adds, also doesn’t get to define what “draining the swamp” means, his familiar mantra on the campaign trail that pumped up voters. Trump signed an executive action barring his appointees from lobbying for five years after leaving the administration, but he also rolled back Obama-era restrictions on lobbyists. And he’s said little as president about his views on political money policy, though most voters agree the system is broken.

“This notion that you can hold that dam back for a long time is erroneous. That being said, it’s going to be held back for a while,” says McGehee, whose first job in Washington was as an aide to then-Rep. Dante B. Fascell, D-Fla.

“If somebody asked me: ‘How do you define success?’ My metric for success is we’re in there fighting every day for the more perfect union,” she says.

Amanda Nguyen

While she works on a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights in state legislatures, Amanda Nguyen has put a career goal of working for NASA on hold. (Courtesy Amanda Nguyen Facebook page)
While she works on a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights in state legislatures, Amanda Nguyen has put a career goal of working for NASA on hold. (Courtesy Amanda Nguyen Facebook page)

BY ALEX GANGITANO

CQ ROLL CALL

Amanda Nguyen experienced a nearly unparalleled victory in Congress, but she isn’t finished yet.

The founder of RISE, a nonprofit working for a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights in state legislatures, Nguyen wants to ensure that rape kits used to collect evidence after assaults cannot be destroyed.

Former President Barack Obama signed the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act last October to preserve rape kits in federal cases — an issue Nguyen faced after being sexually assaulted herself.

“I was able to pen my own civil rights into existence and now I’m trying to help other people do that, too,” says Nguyen, 25. “It’s spreading and it’s just such an amazing experience to be able to see people, just ordinary people in their communities, be empowered to make this change in their own home states.”

It took only seven months from the time she took the first steps to establish RISE to the bill’s unanimous passage in Congress.

Experts told the coalition that of the substantive bills that both the House and Senate have passed since 1989 via a recorded tally, only 0.016 percent were approved unanimously. “I still can’t really wrap my head around — that’s like near impossible,” she says.

Nguyen’s advocacy has paid off. Since 2017, 12 states have introduced rape-kit bills, four of which have already passed committee, and two have passed through floor votes. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed legislation this month.

Nguyen started RISE in November 2015, when she sent an initial email asking people to help write a bill for Massachusetts, where she was raped in 2013. RISE now has a chief of staff, a national organizing director coming on full time soon, and volunteers. While working on the legislative effort, Nguyen put on hold her career goal — working for NASA, where she interned in 2013.

“I still want to be an astronaut,” she says. “The reason why I chose to do this and devote my time here is because we are in a very unique space of potentially being able to make change, and it’s incredible, historic change that’s happened.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the group’s name as an acronym.

David Cole

Earlier this year, David Cole began a stint as legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen file photo)
Earlier this year, David Cole began a stint as legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen file photo)

BY JONATHAN MILLER

CQ ROLL CALL

David Cole couldn’t be more blunt: “This feels like a post-9/11 moment,” he tells CQ Roll Call. In January, the longtime constitutional scholar at Georgetown University Law School began a stint as legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, and he’s seeing parallels between the current administration and that of George W. Bush.

“We’ve got an executive branch that’s … already shown itself with a proclivity to overreach,” Cole says.

It’s his job, he says, to lead the pushback. And he’ll have an army of lawyers at his command, 300 in all — a huge change for a man who has never supervised more than five.

Those lawyers have already sprung into action. The ACLU has served as co-counsel on a number of high-profile cases, including the travel ban and refugee order issued by President Donald Trump in January that prevented those from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. The group convinced a federal judge in Maryland to partially block a revised order that was to take effect March 16.

Cole, 58, has been in the middle of much of the action. In January, he testified at the confirmation hearing for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama to become attorney general.

“If you learned that a candidate for an entry-level position on your staff had said some of the offensive things Sen. Sessions has said and had misled you about his prior accomplishments, you would probably look elsewhere,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Cole will be splitting his time between Washington and New York, where the ACLU is headquartered. In addition to his work at the ACLU, Cole will continue to contribute to The Nation magazine as legal affairs correspondent and to the New York Review of Books. “This is an exciting time and an exciting moment to be full time in the fight,” he says.

Sarah Chamberlain

Sarah Chamberlain is president of Republican Main Street Partnership. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sarah Chamberlain is president of Republican Main Street Partnership. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

BY BRIDGET BOWMAN

CQ ROLL CALL

Sarah Chamberlain sees an important opportunity in a unified Republican government.

“They just want us to get things done; hence, that’s why a lot of them went for Donald Trump,” Chamberlain says of the female voters she encountered during the Republican Main Street Partnership’s “Women 2 Women” tour of 2016. The tour to various states involved group discussions between female lawmakers with their female constituents. “They were tired of the gridlock,” says Chamberlain.

Main Street has sought to bring conservative lawmakers together as a pragmatic, governing coalition. Chamberlain is widely considered to be the only woman running a major GOP organization.

With more than 70 members, it has the largest ranks since its founding in 1997, and Chamberlain hopes they can be even more active with Republicans in charge of the White House and Congress.

Chamberlain says that more than 90 percent of those members had not been in Congress when Republicans controlled both branches. So Main Street can be an avenue for Republicans to get to know each other and find ways to work together.

Fostering collaboration is a personal goal for Chamberlain, who says she has learned the value of building personal relationships in her two decades at the helm of Main Street. A native of upstate New York, Chamberlain worked for former GOP Rep. Amo Houghton, then went on to lead the John Quincy Adams Society, a foreign policy group, before helping establish Main Street.

Norbert Michel

Norbert Michel calls the 2010 financial overhaul law “absolutely, positively the wrong approach for regulation.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Norbert Michel calls the 2010 financial overhaul law “absolutely, positively the wrong approach for regulation.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

BY DOUG SWORD

CQ ROLL CALL

Norbert Michel is now on the front lines of the Republicans’ effort to repeal Dodd-Frank, the 2010 financial overhaul law, and for good reason: He was editor and contributor to “The Case Against Dodd-Frank,” The Heritage Foundation’s 200-plus page argument against the legislation.

Michel, a 45-year-old native of New Orleans, provided policy support on financial regulatory matters during the Trump transition. He has performed the same function for House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican who has been a relentless critic of the law that emerged in the wake of the financial crisis.

“I dislike pretty close to everything in Dodd-Frank,” says Michel, who has a doctorate in financial economics from the University of New Orleans.

Like Hensarling and Trump administration officials, he blames the slow economic recovery on Democrats’ overhaul of a big chunk of the economy — financial services — as the country was emerging from a deep recession. He says Democrats added to the damage by overhauling a second big chunk of the economy — health care — at the same time.

“Dodd-Frank does not deserve a chance because it is absolutely, positively the wrong approach for regulation if you want smoothly functioning markets that work the best for everybody,” he says. “What Dodd-Frank does is wrestle more and more control of the financial sector and put it into the hands of the government.”

From the relative safe distance of Heritage, Michel is willing to go where even the Trump administration appears unwilling to go.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, during his confirmation testimony, opposed repeal of Dodd-Frank’s ban on proprietary trading by banks whose deposits are insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “Mnuchin’s wrong, flat wrong,” says Michel. “We talk about, I don’t like people gambling with FDIC money, but what the hell do you think a commercial loan is?”

Lindsay Fryer

Lindsay Fryer is vice president at the Penn Hill Group, an education-lobbying firm. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Lindsay Fryer is vice president at the Penn Hill Group, an education-lobbying firm. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

BY EMILY WILKINS

CQ ROLL CALL

As a student teacher in Boston in the early 2000s, Lindsay Fryer realized that her interest in education was larger than the classroom.

“I liked the connection with the kids,” says the New Jersey native, “But I was always much more interested in the politics that were going on with the teachers, and what policies from the state and federal level they saw as affecting their classrooms.”

Fryer, 32, who was graduating from Boston College as the education law known as No Child Left Behind was expiring in 2007, didn’t imagine she would be playing a key role in crafting that law’s successor.

After studying education policy and management at Harvard University, she went to the American Institutes for Research, where she examined the impact of various education programs and policies on students. She left there in June 2011 and went hunting for a job on Capitol Hill.

Unlike some congressional aides who rise through the ranks within lawmaker’s offices, Fryer’s background in education helped her land a job with then-House Education and the Workforce Chairman John Kline, a Minnesota Republican, and later with Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Over pizza, bagels and sometimes a few drinks, Fryer and other congressional staffers crafted what would become known as ESSA — the Every Student Succeeds Act. Fryer contributed with her policy background, but her ability to compromise with Democratic staffers was key.

“It’s one thing to know policy,” says Kline, who retired in January. “But then you have to work with people and get to a mutual understanding, and eventually to get major legislation passed you have to make tradeoffs. She had the ability to do that.”

Fryer says she attempted to be firm, yet fair, in her negotiations.

“I don’t just say ‘no’ to every proposal that comes across my desk,” she says. “I’d say we can’t do this but maybe we can do something like this and get you halfway to your goal.”

The bill passed with bipartisan support and was deemed a “Christmas miracle” by President Barack Obama.

While Fryer is an expert on K-12 education and the new legislation, she’s already on to the next thing.

She left government last September to become vice president at the Penn Hill Group, an education-lobbying firm, to focus on higher education issues. That’s the direction where Alexander is headed as well. He stated recently that one of his committee’s top priorities this year is continuing work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.

“Rather than looking at systems and how they need to change, it’s individual services to students and how they can best serve those students,” she says. “It’s kind of looking at education from a new perspective.”

Fryer isn’t expecting legislation anytime soon. One of the biggest catalysts to update the K-12 law was increased frustration at No Child Left Behind because of the increased federal demands on state and local education officials. Higher education issues have yet to become that irritating, she says.

By the time the reauthorization happens, she could be back on the Hill.

“I’ll miss it and I’ll want to go back,” she muses. “I won’t say yes definitely, but I’m not saying no either. I don’t think I’m necessarily done with public service.”

Collin O’Mara

Collin O’’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Collin O’’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

BY JEREMY DILLON

CQ ROLL CALL

With a Republican-controlled Congress and administration vowing to roll back environmental regulations they say impede economic development, the National Wildlife Federation’s president and CEO, Collin O’Mara, may be able to make a case for protecting public lands that will resonate with red-state lawmakers.

Unlike President Donald Trump, O’Mara, 37, is an avid outdoorsman — an active hunter and fisherman — giving him credibility with the many lawmakers who can be found in their campaign literature brandishing hunting rifles and fishing rods. He hopes to use that connection to build bipartisan support on tough issues such as the Endangered Species Act and public land management.

“There is a massive conservation majority in this country,” O’Mara says. “I can find some common ground with 90 to 95 percent of the Congress.”

Combined with a graduate school stop in Oxford, England, O’Mara developed an economic philosophy to land management: clean land and water gives opportunity for low-income and rural communities that can sometimes get left behind. O’Mara is quick to point out the vastness of the outdoor recreational economy, which includes an estimated $646 billion infusion to the U.S. economy every year.

“Folks don’t want to be on the wrong side of sportsmen,” O’Mara says. “We are seeing these issues become less and less partisan on the ground, so hopefully that translates to some level of rationality here.”

Growing up in upstate New York, O’Mara saw the two sides of that environmental equation — landscapes worth a painting but an industrial pollution legacy that lasted generations, as seen through Onondaga Lake — one of the most polluted waterways in the country as a result of years of chemical dumping.

“The jobs went away, but the pollution was still there,” O’Mara says. “I saw the down side of not taking care of these resources and the upside of having amazing places to fish and hike.”

O’Mara, who was secretary of the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control from 2009-14, has become a regular at Capitol Hill news events as Democrats look to raise awareness of the environmental threats facing the country, like the Flint, Michigan, drinking water problems and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s denial that carbon emissions are the major contributor to climate change.

“I view conservation as much as a silver bullet to addressing economic and long-term challenges facing this country as anything else,” O’Mara says.

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