critics have blamed much of Deval Patrick’s early troubles on Beacon Hill on a lack of political experience. But if experience counts, Patrick may do better on Capitol Hill, where his chief Washington advocate—Susan Liss—is a policy veteran with close ties to Sen. John Kerry and Democratic Party leaders.
Liss’s hire is part of a hoped-for expansion of the state’s operations in Washington that Patrick says could yield dividends in the form of increased federal funding for the Bay State. Liss describes her role as Patrick’s “voice and eyes and ears” in Washington. And her mission, she says, is to reverse a long slide in the return Massachusetts taxpayers receive on their federal investment. Her method in achieving that goal, Liss says, will be to ensure that Patrick and the state’s DC delegation walk in lockstep to promote the state’s funding objectives.
That level of cooperation never existed during the Romney years, according to US Rep. Michael Capuano of Somerville, who says that the Republican governor contacted the state’s representatives only “when he wanted to do a press release.” Increased staffing in Washington—Patrick has asked the Legislature for an additional $500,000 in funding for the DC office—combined with better coordination, says Capuano, will ensure that no potential funding opportunities are ignored. “If we find one item that we would have otherwise missed,” he says of the expanded effort, “it can pay for itself tenfold.”
That’s not to say that a change in party control is going to make things easy for Liss. Lobbying scandals have prompted new scrutiny on earmarked funding for state projects, and a Republican president eager to re-establish his fiscal conservative credentials during his final two years in office may veto bills he deems to be laden with pork.
But Liss says she’s just the person to get the job done. “I am used to plowing ahead no matter what the obstacles,” she says. “I don’t take no for an answer easily.”
In explaining why she’s up to the task, Liss, 55, points to her long experience in the capital, during which time she developed a reputation for overcoming bureaucratic obstacles. Her resume includes a string of high-profile positions, perhaps the highlight of which is her dual stint at the White House in the late 1990s as counsel to Vice President Al Gore and chief of staff to Tipper Gore.
liss got to know Patrick in the mid-1990s at the Justice Department, when Patrick was nominated to become assistant attorney general for civil rights. Liss, who’d served in the department’s legal division since 1993, was charged with preparing him for his confirmation hearings.
She earned the respect of top Justice officials for her skill as bureaucratic infighter. Liss points to her efforts, after Congress passed legislation to restrict abortion clinic violence, to create an enforcement program at Justice to bring local and federal resources to bear. Her skill at navigating turf battles also helped when she worked with law enforcement agencies to coordinate a response to a series of burnings of Southern black churches during the mid ’90s.
A Baltimore native, Liss has never lived in Massachusetts—a weakness she says she hopes to one day rectify—but she’s brought on board three people with strong local ties. Her first hire, Caroline Powers, is a Dorchester native and former legislative director to US Rep. Stephen Lynch of South Boston. She’s the point person on health care issues, particularly the renewal of Massachusetts’s federal Medicaid waiver. Administrative assistant Paige Bik is from the Worcester area and came recommended by that city’s congressman, Jim McGovern, and his former chief of staff, Tim Murray, who’s now Patrick’s lieutenant governor. Gabe Maser, originally from Arlington, joined the team after leaving the staff of Democrat Sander Levin, a congressman from Michigan. And Liss says she hopes to bring on one more experienced aide before she’s through.
Among the 30 or so states that have Washington offices, Liss’s five-person staff is mid-sized, according to David Quam, the director of federal relations for the National Governors Association. He says the state is wise to give it more attention. Having a strong Washington office “puts a direct face on state policy-making at the national level,” he says. “Too often, there can be a disconnect between DC and what happens back in the states. A DC office helps close that gap.”
Over the summer, Liss and her staff lobbied on the extension of a federal program that provides funding for states to offer health insurance to children even when they are in families above the poverty line, and they worked with the National Transportation Safety Board in advance of its report on the 2006 collapse of ceiling tiles that killed a woman in one of the Big Dig tunnels. She also launched an innovative program to provide Bay State nonprofits with intelligence on Washington grant programs and tips on how to secure funding from them.
But her most significant achievement so far and, Liss hopes, the foundation for her future success, has been simply to establish some trust between the governor’s office and the state’s congressional delegation. “If you talk to anyone in the delegation, they’ll tell you this: We do our best to be ahead of the curve, to notify the offices when something is happening in their district and to include them. It never happened before,” she says.
That’s surely an exaggeration, but Liss has a point. Having a Democrat working for the governor in Washington has created a level of trust that didn’t exist during 16 years of Weld, Cellucci, Swift, and Romney administrations. And Liss isn’t just any Democrat. In addition to being a close friend of Patrick, she is very close with Kerry, having chaired Women for Kerry, an arm of the senator’s 2004 presidential campaign.
Unlike most state liaisons in Washington, Liss is a member of the governor’s senior staff, participating in policy-making and senior-level discussions. She reports to Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative from Dorchester who most recently served as chief of housing for Boston Mayor Tom Menino and is now Patrick’s senior advisor for federal, state, and community relations. Liss also works closely with Patrick chief of staff Doug Rubin, senior advisor David Morales, and senior communications advisor Joe Landolfi.
And Liss’s clout with Patrick has proved a boon to her outreach efforts in Washington. Since taking office, Patrick has pitched in by making several visits to the capital, and he has set a goal of maintaining direct contact with the congressional delegation at least once every six weeks, either in face-to-face meetings or by conference call.With her access to Patrick and his inner circle and a newly empowered congressional delegation behind her, Liss says now is the time to set high goals. That, in spite of the fact that the Democratic majority in Congress has not shown, at least as yet, that it has the numbers to overcome GOP resistance in the Senate and President Bush’s veto pen. Both stand in the way of any significant federal largesse trickling down to Massachusetts.
But Liss doesn’t allow Washington gridlock to dampen her enthusiasm. “People told me that this is one of the most interesting jobs in Washington,” she says. “Almost every issue on the Hill has impact on the Commonwealth. And for a person who believes government has a role to play in making people’s lives better, it’s a feast.”