The 150 Day Chief

Exclusive Q&A with WSW’s Donna Mullins on her whirlwind tour of duty in the United States Senate and her return to civilian life.

When New Jersey’s Jeff Chiesa was sworn in to the United States Senate to fill the 150-day balance of the late Frank Lautenburg’s unexpired term, he tapped WSW’s Donna Mullins for chief-of-staff. Her tenure tracks the storms of immigration reform, a hot crisis in Syria, a government shutdown and the rise of Ted Cruz. Back to work at Winning Strategies Washington, we’ve asked our colleague to share some lessons and reflections from her whirlwind tour of duty.

Donna Mullins

WSW: In an era that’s supercharged with cynicism about politics and the political processes, what is the biggest difference between the inside and outside view of U.S. Senate?

DM: Relationships still matter. In the Twitter age, anything a senator says gets broadcast, so the ability to get that view heard on the Senate floor or a wider audience by going off and talking to the press is an ever present reality.

Every senator well understands the power and risks of that bully pulpit. But this access to a big, broad audience has to be tempered a bit by the fact that this is an institution whose strength is found in the relationships between and among these 100 Senators. It still matters.

WSW: So how does that model of relationship-based governing work with a new class of philosophically driven senators?

DM: I think Senator Ted Cruz is a good example. I think he would even say that he looks at the institution much differently—as a platform for ideas, but not necessarily as the right place to fix problems. As I observed, he’s much more focused on the outside audience and the implications of a speech, than forging relationships or coalitions with colleagues. I think that’s why his most public effort ultimately didn’t succeed. In the Senate, you need to have strong relationships internally to build a successful outcome. If you want to change the outcome for your constituents, you have to appreciate the way the system continues to work inside the walls.

WSW: So where is the balance between the traditional Washington and the ‘storm the gates’ pressures rippling through the 24-hour messaging world of social media and partisan news channels?

Donna MullinsDM: Look, I think the reality is that it’s here to stay, and it’s only going to continue to accelerate this instantaneous ability to communicate and react. Most of this change is for the good, but they live side by side and they don’t replace the need to dig deep wells of trust and solid relationships.

WSW: Can you give a for instance?

DM: The best example I can give you is Johnson & Johnson. They should really write a book on good lobbying. They work hard on relationships, and give people an awareness of what their people and products do, and the difference they’re making in lives of people all around the world. They do this over weeks, months and years. They don’t often ask, but when they do, they have thought it through, know what the objective is, and have built the kind of relationships that will get them there. The response time to their request when they are in need of government action is as quick as a Tweet but comes from a different, more secure place – in genuine relationships. The challenge in politics is that we have migrated to this instantaneous world, but true relationships aren’t built in an instant.

WSW: What are your parting thoughts about Senator Chiesa after his service in Washington? How do you think he’ll be viewed over the long haul?

DM: Well, I think the positive reviews of his time in the Senate are pretty telling. He really went to Washington with a mind to do a specific job and not try to overstay. In the closing days of his term, a senator was overheard saying that Jeff learned more about his colleagues in those few, short weeks, than some with far longer tenures. That’s a great tribute. Many of us hope that he’ll consider running again for the Senate, or any other post where he’ll be able to impact the process for good.

WSW: Has your advice to clients and colleagues been impacted by these 150 days in the Senate? Has the experience changed the way you work?

DM: It certainly does. It confirms the basic premise in the way we work and continue to operate. We’re right to help our clients build long-term relationships with their members, beyond something shallow and transactional. Even with 18 years of experience working in the House, it was a great education on understanding the many tools in the toolbox of senators to impact change. Any individual senator has the power to move the ball a great distance, and their ability to interact with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle really does determine the trajectory of a committee agenda. This is a remarkable position from which to do good.

WSW: Should your clients feel good or bad about just where Washington sits today. There is a rising frustration that they’re just not listening.

DM: I absolutely understand people’s dismay. I think people just want Washington to get the job done, and they don’t want to read about the dysfunction. They want Congress to pass the budget even if its imperfect, to keeps the national parks open, and research going, and provide for the men and women who serve—just get the job done.

I’ve had the get a chance to see up close and personal some of the real folks; folks know their names because they served in the Senate a long time – men like John McCain and Jay Rockefeller. They’ve stayed and served for the right reasons. But there is also a new generation of leaders I find inspiring, hard working and earnest. These are senators who want to do the right thing, and don’t hail from the extremes—people in the mold of a Bob Corker and Kelly Ayotte—bright, hopeful examples who represent a serious approach to fixing problems. They know that doing the job right doesn’t always get you booked on Meet the Press, and they seem to be just fine with that.