Home » Meet DC's Most Influential – Washingtonian

Meet DC's Most Influential – Washingtonian

by Arifa Rana



5 Questions / Naomi Camper
Chief Policy Officer, American Bankers Association
First job: “Cleaning dormitory bathrooms. I learned that it’s really not nice to leave messes for other people to clean up.”
Book you couldn’t put down: “I just finished 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. It’s a reminder of how profoundly hard life was [in Britain after] World War II and the sacrifices people made to defeat the Axis powers.”
Favorite Washington restaurant:“I love getting takeout from Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase DC. It’s a neighborhood market/deli counter that has picnic tables outside. We always run into friends and neighbors, and dogs are welcome. It stayed open throughout the pandemic, and it has really transformed its little corner into a gathering spot.”
A professional challenge and how you overcame it: “Having three children in four years while working on Capitol Hill. That was only possible because I worked for a family-friendly senator and had incredible support at home. I’m glad my kids have very fuzzy memories of that era.”
Best career advice: “The best I ever received was not to be in a rush or too rigid with goals. Some of my best jobs were happy accidents that took me in unexpected directions. You don’t want to sprint up the mountain and then wonder what the heck you’re supposed to do for the next 30 years.”
 

By the Numbers / Nicole Elam
President and CEO, National Bankers Association
145+
Number of minority-owned/operated banks NBA represents
13
Number of NBA employees/consultants
15
Number of years she’s lived in DC
95
Number of years NBA has existed
10+
Number of issues she lobbies on
4,300+
Number of FDIC-insured banks in the US
 


5 Questions / Stephen Lamar
President and CEO, American Apparel & Footwear Association
Favorite Washington restaurant: “Char Bar. Great food, and with one sandwich named Steve’s Steak Sub and another the Lamar 2.0, how could it not be my favorite?”
12-hour itinerary for a visitor in DC: “Do an early-morning six-mile run along the Mall, stopping frequently to take sunrise pictures. Visit the Air and Space, Natural History, and Spy museums. Grab a seat along the third-base line at a Nationals game.”
How you balance a typical workday: “Lots of time—in person or virtually—with AAFA members, staff, press, government officials, and industry stake­holders around the world. Of course, during the pandemic, this is often broken up with Frisbee catches with my dog in our backyard.”
Dream job: “Civil engineer. Considering how much I love building sand castles, I think I missed a calling.”
Best career advice: “Be specific in your gratitude. People like to be recognized, acknowledged, and thanked.”
 
 
Liz Shuler
President, AFL-CIO
Liz Shuler didn’t choose her moment of maximum influence. It chose her after the death of AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka in August from a heart attack.
Two weeks later, she was elected the first female president in the history of the nation’s largest labor organization, tasked with keeping it moving during the uncertainty of the pandemic, a wave of strikes throughout the country, and a grieving staff.
But Shuler was ready due to a lifetime of preparation that began when she was 11 and had her first job babysitting—which provided her initial lesson in the power of collective bargaining. “One day, I discovered that the parents were paying different rates for different sitters,” she recalls. “I found out from my friend that her hourly pay was lower than mine, and it seemed pretty unfair. So we came together to ask for equal pay.”
As a teenager waitressing in Portland, Oregon, she saw firsthand how the practice of tipping based on service could subject women to unwelcome and inappropriate behavior, motivating her ongoing fight to eliminate the tipped minimum wage. “In 43 states right now, tipped workers are paid a minimum wage of just $2.13 an hour,” she says.
After college, Shuler assisted with a drive to organize female clerical employees at Portland General Electric. The company’s fierce opposition taught her about the uphill battles that workers can face, but it also solidified her career path.
She’s still guided by advice from her longtime mentor, union leader Ed Hill, who instilled in Shuler a determination not to be afraid to take risks.
“It’s easier to do what’s comfortable and not rock the boat, but that won’t get you very far,” she says. “If you take a chance and screw up, that shows you’re actually pushing the envelope, doing something new, and learning lessons along the way.”
 

5 Questions / Chris R. Swonger
President and CEO, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States
First job: “Landscaping in Abilene, Texas, during hot, hot, hot Southern summers and washing dishes at La Hacienda Mexican Restaurant, also in Abilene.”
Book you couldn’t put down: “Bourbon: The Story of Kentucky Whiskey by Clay Risen. It showcases the wonderful distilleries in Kentucky with gorgeous photos.”
Favorite Washington restaurants: “Hard Times Cafe in Alexandria and Dauphine’s in DC.”
12-hour itinerary for a visitor in DC: “A visit to George Washington’s Distillery at Mount Vernon; tastings—responsibly!—at all the DC distilleries; a tour of Arlington National Cemetery; and a stop at all the wonderful monuments. If there’s extra time, Union Market to see the new mural created by Brandan ‘BMike’ Odums, someone I think is a phenomenal artist with strong community values.”
Dream job: “Head of corporate affairs and communications for the Dallas Cowboys. Sorry, Washington Football Team fans, you can take a boy out of Texas, but you can’t take Texas out of the boy.”
 
A Lesson I Learned Through a Mistake / Geoff Freeman
Consumer Brands Association
“I once made the mistake of cooperating extensively with a reporter on a story that placed one of my trade association’s members in a poor light. My ego got in the way, and the result almost cost me my job. Thank you to the two individuals that saved me. It was a low point in my career, and I overcame it by falling back on the lessons I learned as a soccer goalkeeper: You’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to get beat, and the only thing you can do is focus on what happens next. To this day, I know that I will make mistakes and I know that dwelling on them won’t do me or my team any good. Have a short memory and focus on the next save.”
 

Joi O. Chaney
Executive Director, Washington Bureau, and Senior Vice President, Policy and Advocacy, National Urban League
As a middle-school student growing up in Orlando, Joi Chaney was transfixed by Anita Hill’s 1991 Senate testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings. Years later, she’d work at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, just as Hill had.
As Chaney’s Washington career nears two decades, she has worn almost every hat imaginable: Capitol Hill policy director, equal-pay campaign leader, consultant, chief of staff to a senator. Now she’s leveraging her formative experiences and her many relationships in her role as an executive director and senior vice president at the National Urban League, one of the nation’s leading civil-rights groups.
Chaney helped secure and choreograph last fall’s meeting between civil-rights leaders and Senator Joe Manchin, a Democratic holdout on enacting sweeping changes to voting laws. Such meetings can get heated, and sincere disagreements often linger, but Chaney follows two crucial guidelines in her policy-advocacy interactions: Talk to anyone willing to engage, and do it with emotional intelligence regarding the other party’s perspective.
“Being balanced, being careful about your words—I think we’re all too fast and loose with our words,” she says. “Just saying too damn much. Making definitive statements that cut off debate.”
Chaney aspires to enter every meeting with a goal of maintaining relationships with those who disagree with her. Otherwise, you’re left talking to allies already onboard: “You do have to leave room for ‘Maybe we disagree, but we can always come back to the table.’ I think there’s a lost art of that—lowering the temperature.”
 
A Book That Changed My Perspective / Roy Austin, Meta
Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon. I actually found myself putting it down rather frequently because it is such a graphic, detailed, and painful nonfiction book. To read how this country treated Black people, even after slavery was supposedly prohibited, hurts deeply and personally. It shows how powerful people, who could have done better, not only abdicated their moral and ethical responsibilities but lied to defend their actions. This is the history that I was never taught and that everyone should learn.”
 
By the Numbers / George David Banks
Fellow, Bipartisan Policy Center
After 2050
When he believes the US will achieve net-zero emissions
24
Number of meetings he has weekly (including Zoom)
30+
Number of House and Senate Republican offices he works with on climate issues
30
Number of years he’s lived in the DC area
18
Number of years he’s worked on climate issues
12
Number of jobs he’s had involving climate change (including environmental NGO, House of Representatives, law firm, Senate, State Department, think tanks, trade association, and White House)
 

5 Questions / William E. Spriggs
Professor of Economics, Howard UniversityChief Economist, AFL-CIO
Book you couldn’t put down: “A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. I read it as an undergraduate taking a course in African history, taught by the great professor Joseph Harris. It was the first time I had thought of literature as a way to understand history.”
Favorite Washington restaurant: “Ben’s Chili Bowl. It says the Washington where I was born and lived through elementary school.”
12-hour itinerary for a visitor in DC: “Visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and President Lincoln’s Cottage, then make a stop to walk the Yard at Howard University. All that will put you in the presence of the ghosts of Washington. Make sure to walk the Mall—America’s lawn—and visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Visit the garden of the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America—I grew up a few blocks from there—to take a moment to contemplate. I think that day will make you reflect on the struggles to create a sustained democracy and the many dimensions of what a democracy means.”
Dream job: “Playwright. I took a lot of theater-arts courses as an undergraduate; directed, acted, and had a full-length play produced at Tuskegee University; and did an independent study writing a play under the late Larry Neal.”
Best advice: “It was from my father: Always do your best, make a good first impression, and let your deeds and talent talk—not your bragging.”
 
What I Learned From My First Job / Susan K. Neely
American Council of Life Insurers
“My first job was as a receptionist for my congressman, Jim Leach, in Iowa. I was promoted to a cub legislative correspondent/press assistant after three months because I’d learned the art of writing for the congressman. Jim was a former Foreign Service officer and very exacting. Words had to be precise and perfect. Among other things, I learned the useful skill of how to be noncommittal on controversial issues in order to buy time to let the debate ripen and the right answer emerge. I have applied what I learned from Jim every day of my career.”
 

Brian Wolff
Chief Strategy Officer and Executive Vice President, Public Policy and External Affairs, Edison Electric Institute
Brian Wolff subscribes to a rule that has become common among powerbrokers glued to their phones: Don’t call—text. Though at the time of this writing, he had 421 unread text messages.
Perhaps feeling little rush to respond to an avalanche of DMs is the true sign of a seasoned Washington insider.
For the past dozen years, Wolff has lobbied on behalf of an association that represents nearly 70 percent of the nation’s electric-power industry, providing energy to more than 220 million Americans. But his enduring influence is attributable to the connections made with and lessons learned from a pair of powerful women: Nancy Pelosi and Tammy Haddad.
Wolff received his best career advice from Pelosi, for whom he worked as political director. “ ‘Proper planning prevents poor performance,’ ” he recalls her saying. “She really taught me that magic just doesn’t happen, and it’s rarely luck.”
The worst advice he’s received? “Like what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Wolff loves his job but underscores that “it takes work to set yourself apart from mediocrity.”
The risk of being ordinary was ingrained in him during his first Washington job, as a copyeditor on CNN’s Larry King Live, where he worked with Haddad, who was executive producer (and has gone on to become a DC institution as a media consultant and in-crowd party planner). There, Wolff realized he was eminently replaceable and saw that plenty of people were poised to step into his role if he faltered: “I learned a sense of urgency I have carried with me my whole career.”
 

5 Questions / Nazanin Ash
CEO, Welcome.US
Book you couldn’t put down: “Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora’s sheer will and core belief that she had value when all her external signs and signals were that she did not—even as she was burdened by a core insecurity. And then that ending.”
Favorite Washington restaurant: “Albi in Navy Yard. It’s Levantine with Eastern Mediterranean food, and when I eat there, I am reminded of one of the best meals I ever had—high in the mountains around Beirut at a family-owned, family-style restaurant, at a long table with wonderful friends and colleagues.”
Professional challenge you’re overcoming: “Feeling like I belong in the room and that what I have to say might actually be a good idea. I still struggle with it!”
Dream job: “In another life, or maybe another phase of this one, I would own a cake-and-pie bakery. And I would bake.”
Best advice: “My life involves a lot of juggling. Balls drop. Best advice I ever heard was to know which balls are glass and which are plastic.”
 
My Biggest Professional Challenge / Heather Wingate
Delta
“My transition from public to private sector sticks with me. I wasn’t sure if it was the right move because I couldn’t imagine getting the same fulfillment working for a corporation as I had working in the Senate and White House. I also assumed I’d have a difficult time adjusting to the organizational structure and governance. [So] I employed a similar approach that I did when I arrived in DC as a congressional intern and later as a staffer: I networked internally and did a lot of listening and learning. The most influential ‘advice’ I received came from simply watching those I admired at work, whether a senator or a CEO. The takeaway was the importance of calm and confidence under pressure.”
 

Dmitri Alperovitch
Executive Chairman, Silverado Policy Accelerator
Dmitri Alperovitch’s first job was founding a cybersecurity startup with his dad. He was in high school. Putting aside his teenage audacity, the experience turned into his North Star, foreshadowing a career in security innovation. “That startup effort illuminated that a path exists to convert what’s in your mind into a reality,” Alperovitch says.
In 2011, he founded CrowdStrike, building it into the world’s largest cybersecurity company as he became part of the vanguard that identified the hackers wreaking havoc on nation-states. Last year, he sought to broaden his impact by launching Silverado Policy Accelerator, an addition to DC’s think-tank community that’s designed to disrupt it by eschewing ideology for a venture-capitalist pursuit of the best ideas in economics, trade, and cybersecurity.
Alperovitch’s day might involve brainstorming on how to advance the US semiconductor industry, attending a congressional hearing, or appearing on TV to discuss the geopolitics of climate change. The best advice he’s received is to ignore naysayers who avoid risk. He learned this through his pursuit of attributing cyberattacks, because many were carried out by members of the intelligence community. “I started issuing public attribution reports based on my findings, and doing so helped shift the paradigm on cyber­security’s role in geopolitics,” he says. “The kicker is you’ll be told you’re wrong by the status quo until one day they realize you’re right. Then they’ll say your views are common knowledge.”
 

Brian Huseman
Vice President, Public Policy, Amazon
Whether it’s combating antitrust legislation aimed at breaking up Amazon or leading the e-commerce giant’s efforts to set up onsite vaccination clinics for employees, Brian Huseman has rarely experienced a lull in his nearly ten years at the company. But he counts navigating Amazon’s selection of Northern Virginia for its HQ2 as one of his biggest ongoing challenges.
Huseman represented the company in two tough appearances before New York’s city council, only to see Amazon, in the face of local backlash, pull out from the deal that would have split HQ2 between Long Island City and Arlington. “Having to bear the brunt of delivering bad news—that seems like a lot of what I do,” Huseman quips.
But the build-out of the facility in National Landing (formerly Crystal City)—which currently houses 3,000 employees—continues as the company seeks approval for a second development phase. “We’re working hard to be a good neighbor from the very beginning,” Huseman says. “I tell my team that we want Amazon in Arlington to be the best example of a corporate citizen the world has ever seen.”
Huseman lives in DC’s Navy Yard for its proximity to Capitol Hill and the ability to walk to Nats Stadium. But as a true company man, he’s also high on Arlington’s offerings, including Signature Theatre and grabbing a bite and a beverage at the Freshman, a new coffee-and-cocktails bar/cafe in the heart of Amazon’s increasingly bustling HQ2.
 
A Professional Tip I Swear By / Lulu Cheng Meservey
Substack
“Always set email delays. The ancient Persians debated everything twice: once when they were drunk and once when they were sober. I don’t drink, but I try to deliberate all important decisions both at night and in the light of day. The nighttime is good for brainstorming, while the light of day is good for filtering out the crazy. So when I write emails late at night, I’ll schedule a delayed send for midmorning the next day. For regular diurnal emails, I have a one-minute delay on my outbox, because as everyone knows, the best time to catch a catastrophic error is immediately after hitting send.”
 
The Best and Worst Advice I’ve Received / Elissa Alben
Pfizer
“When I was 22, a psychic at a friend’s birthday party told me that being a lawyer would be too much for me and I should try doing something a little less intense. While there are a few days where I think that might have been the best piece of career advice I’ve received, most of the time I think it was the worst—I’ve loved having an intense job, one that makes me feel that the precious time I spend away from my family is dedicated to something meaningful.”

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