“A good lobbyist starts with a sound strategy, has the relationships and infrastructure to get it done, and frankly doesn’t spend a lot of time asking people to do things that are not in their interest,” says Susan B. Hirschmann.

Hirschmann is chairman and CEO of Williams & Jensen, the high-powered Washington, D.C., law and lobbying firm. Hirschmann is a fixture on The Hill’s annual list of Washington’s top lobbyists. When she signed on at Williams & Jensen in 2002, the Washington Post declared Williams & Jensen was “the winner in the Susan Brackin Hirschmann sweepstakes.” 

“I’ve represented dozens of people coming off the Hill, staffers and members alike, and seldom has anyone been as strongly sought after as Susan Hirschmann,” Robert Barnett, the Williams & Connolly lawyer who negotiates book and job contracts for the capital’s rich and famous, was quoted saying. Hirschmann hails from a small town in Alabama and retains a dulcet-toned southern accent. So, it’s not surprising that, when reminded of the Washington Post profile, she disarmingly responds that it was “nice of Bob to say that.”

After the movie “Miss Sloane,” starring Jessica Chastain as a cutthroat Washington lobbyist, came out in 2016, the Atlantic did a story on women lobbyists who were “breaking glass and taking charge on K Street.” Hirschmann was one of the female lobbyists featured. Her novel contribution to networking caught the magazine’s attention. 

“Susan Hirschmann knew early on she wasn’t going to be one of those guys closing deals on the golf course,” the Atlantic noted. “First, she wasn’t a guy, and second, she wasn’t a good golfer.” Admitting that there “weren’t enough lessons” to succeed through golf, and realizing that women were taking a bigger role on K Street, Hirschmann began to host networking events at Tammy Nails, a manicure-pedicure salon on Capitol Hill. “It takes a lot less time to do a manicure-pedicure happy hour or a manicure-pedicure lunch than to play a round of golf,” Hirschmann was quoted saying. “We could be just as efficient, and a mani-pedi, frankly, costs less.”

“I didn’t discriminate against men or women, and I allowed men to come and in fairness to them, I think they did more in the way of getting drinks rather than getting their nails done,” Susan tells IWF. “They were more social participants.” I guess it would be rude to ask whether Tom DeLay ever got a mani-pedi? 

Hirschmann no longer hosts her networking nail salons, but she remains active in helping provide networking opportunities for women. “When I was Tom’s chief,” she recalls, “I started pulling together all of the female chiefs of staff, because I found that women tended to sit in their office working and men were out networking. So, I decided that I was going to pull in the women and we were going to encourage women to network. The way professional life works is that, usually when new jobs come along, people are put up for them and put up by someone who knows them. It’s hard for people to know how valuable you are if you don’t have a network of people that you work with. And so I thought it was so important for the women to do that networking. 

“Women also can help give other women confidence. Throughout my career, whenever a job has come along, I’ve never met a man who thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, am I qualified for that job?’ And quite honestly, most women, when they hear of an opportunity, their first thought is, ‘Oh my gosh, can I do that job?’ There’s something wrong with this equation.” 

Does it matter whether women hold visible, top jobs?

Hirschmann may be one of the best-connected and influential Beltway politicos, but she is actually an accidental Washingtonian.

“It’s very important to have conservative women in these jobs because there are issues that I just think women can address and appeal to an audience in a way that sometimes men just can’t,” she replies. “I do think it’s important to have a variety of voices. I support men, but I do try to support women because “conventional wisdom” would have us all believe all women think alike, and all women are liberals. It is important to have alternative voices, because women are not just a bunch of sheep. We have our individual brains and are capable of independent thoughts.”

Since its founding more than 50 years ago, Williams & Jensen has been a bipartisan firm. For example, Hirschmann’s latest hire is a former Democratic congressman with a pro-business record, while she herself has a background as a leader of some of the most influential Republican establishments around. Hirschmann was chief of staff to Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader. She served as executive director of Eagle Forum, the pro-family organization founded by the late Phyllis Schlafly. She has served as a board member of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the country’s most visible pro-life organizations. Some denizens of the Washington swamp might be hesitant to sign onto such organizations.

“A lot of lobbyists have a dual political identity depending on whether they are talking to a Republican or Democrat. For me, that has never been an option,” Susan says. “Many in corporate America don’t understand Republican constituents so I do find myself interpreting conservative beliefs. I’ve never run away from what I believe. I work with plenty of people who don’t always agree with my politics but that is what a democracy is all about. 

“I try to be very careful with the clients I take,” she tells IWF, “because I don’t want to go to my friends to lobby them on behalf of an issue that I don’t think they should be supporting. I always try to put myself in the mindset of their staff. If I were the staffer, whether it’s a policy staffer or the chief of staff, would I ask my boss to sign on to this legislation? And if it’s something I would not ask my boss to do, I’m not going to ask them to do it.”

Although Hirschmann is understandably reluctant to talk about specific clients, she has been in the trenches for the passage of numerous high-profile pieces of legislation. She worked to make 529 savings accounts for college permanent and ran outside coalitions to pass Medicare Part D, the drug plan advocated by President George W. Bush. She has helped clients secure funding for important projects, helped stop and secure tax changes, and has prevented her clients from having the government use their revenues as a “pay fors” for other spending or tax programs.  

“Sometimes the job may be taking a really bad piece of legislation for a client that had passed out of a committee by a voice vote on both sides of the aisle and is headed to the suspension calendar and saying, wait a minute, you guys, this is not good, let’s take a breath on this one and let’s look into this policy before we make it permanent law. I think you start with figuring out what is the truth about your issue, and then you go to people who will care, and you use all the tools in the toolbox to either advance it or slow it down.

“When the heat is really on, there are one or two ways to approach an issue A lot of people tend to panic and just say, ‘Oh, we should pull back,’ but my approach is quite the opposite when you’re in that situation, that’s when you put your foot on the gas. One of my favorite quotes is from a client who complimented us for being the best at  snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.”  

Hirschmann may be one of the best-connected and influential Beltway politicos, but she is actually an accidental Washingtonian. She planned to live in Alabama and work as a speech pathologist. Her hometown is Jemison, Alabama. “Which you’ve never heard of,” she says. “There’s a Piggly Wiggly and a stoplight. Or there was a Piggly Wiggly and a stoplight. Now they’ve got a McDonald’s, but back then it was just a Piggly Wiggly.” Her father was a logger, and “the hardest worker I’ve ever met in my whole entire life. You’ve never met a work ethic like my dad’s.” Her mother is still alive and continuing what Hirschmann describes as her life’s work, “instilling loving confidence into her children and grandchildren.” 

Susan went to the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama, where she earned a master’s degree in speech pathology. She was also interested in politics and served as state chairman of the College Republicans. She had a job in speech pathology lined up when she was tapped to be executive director of the College Republican National Committee in Washington. It was supposed to be a temporary thing, and then she would return to Alabama.

“I try to be very careful with the clients I take,” she tells IWF, “because I don’t want to go to my friends to lobby them on behalf of an issue that I don’t think they should be supporting.”

Instead, after a couple of temporary jobs, she met the man she would marry, David Hirschmann, now executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and realized she wanted to work in politics on a national level. David was part of the outgoing administration at the College Republicans. In that capacity, David met Susan’s plane after she had spent the day with Jack Kemp doing his presidential announcement tour—they like to say they met when he picked her up in an airport. “Jack Kemp may have lost his presidential bid, but I eventually won a wonderful husband,” she adds. They have one daughter. 

Would Hirschmann be willing to comment on the debt ceiling deal with which some conservatives aren’t happy?

“I’m happy to comment on it,” she replies. “I’ve always taken an incrementalist approach to moving the agenda that I support. Maybe that’s because I never meant to be in Washington D.C. Maybe it’s because I meant to be a speech pathologist all those years ago. My attitude has always been, ‘I’m in Washington to try to get something done.’ You may not get everything you want, but every little bit that you can advance your priorities beats the heck out of pounding your chest and saying, ‘Here’s what I wanted.’ I’m here to do public policy. I’m here to advance policy goals that I care about and that my clients care about, and so I’d rather get half a loaf than constantly lose. 

“I give the leadership team a lot of credit for getting some spending concessions from the White House, who, quite honestly, thought that they could force a clean debt limit with no concessions. Did they get everything they wanted? Absolutely not. Were they ever going to get everything they wanted? Absolutely not. Did they get some things that the White House didn’t want to give them? They absolutely did. And I think we should celebrate but not oversell it.”

While it is too late for Washington professional women to partake in a networking event at Tammy’s Nails, we’re grateful to Susan Hirschmann for helping women to further their professional goals through networking. This accidental Washington power broker has a lot to teach us about the grit and skills it takes to succeed gracefully while sticking to your beliefs.