Who'll have the best "back in the day" tales to tell about rock-'em-sock-'em Washington? Big-bank lobbyists Candi Wolff and Anita Eoloff will be hard to beat.
They work for different companies — Wolff is the head of global government affairs at Citigroup, and Eoloff manages Wells Fargo's government relations — but their career tracks have a lot in common. They were women in bank lobbying when their colleagues were almost exclusively men, they have been involved in many of the biggest financial services issues of the past two decades from "too big to fail" to cybersecurity, and their policy focus is going global.
Their work, on behalf of their companies and trade associations, has earned praise from friends and foes alike.
Reflecting on their still-evolving careers, Eoloff and Wolff offer a special perspective on the hot topics of the day, the changing faces and practices in the traditionally male world of policy, and the combined power of hard work and good fortune.
BREAKING FROM THE SCRIPT
It wasn't supposed to happen this way for Wolff.
She had a two-year plan to work as a staffer on Capitol Hill and return to tax law, but two became eight and her career path changed.
"I just loved what I was doing," Wolff said. "For me public policy was a calling, and I like the politics of how bills become law and how decisions are made."
She ultimately headed legislative affairs in the second George W. Bush administration for two years, worked a stint at the law firm Hogan Lovells and then joined Citi in 2011.
Her White House service was a formative influence. Wolff had the tough task of lobbying Congress when the House and the Senate were controlled by Democrats.
"That was a difficult spot for the White House," said Joshua Bolten, Bush's chief of staff from 2006 to 2009 and now a managing director at Rock Creek Global Advisors.
"She worked hard on having good relationships on both sides of the aisle and had a lot of credibility among members and senior staff on the Democratic side," he said.
Though Wolff oversees Citi's global government affairs, she also helps steer the broader industry's efforts in Washington. She has become a trusted player even outside of Citi.
"She certainly gives guidance and supervision to her team and to her trade associations, so she has a hand in almost everything that we do," said former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is now the chief executive officer at the Financial Services Roundtable.
A cyber-information-sharing bill that was passed by Congress — "after three or four years' worth of work" — is one example of legislation she and her Citi team helped influence. "They were very helpful under her guidance with that piece of legislation," Pawlenty said.
Wolff's ability to read the political tea leaves is in high demand.
"She could book all her time speaking to clients who all want to try and understand what is going on" in the election, said Edward Skyler, executive vice president for global affairs at Citi. "Her political insight in an election year, which is unique to say the least, is sought after not only by our senior leaders of the company but by our clients, so there have been times where I have to tell people ... she has to stay on her day job."
SALAD DAYS, CRISIS TIMES
Eoloff was a professional staffer with the House Financial Services Committee before getting a call to join the government affairs group at Minneapolis-based Norwest, a predecessor company of today's Wells Fargo.
She decided to go for it.
"I am not much of a planner when it comes to my career," Eoloff said. "As opportunities present themselves, I have been fortunate to be able to take advantage of them."
It is probably a good thing for Wells that she did, as she helped see the company through the financial crisis and the acquisition of Wachovia.
But her duties, in retrospect at least, were more modest at first. She joined Norwest in 1993 to help the bank navigate the intricacies of Washington, eventually seeing her role grow as Norwest acquired Wells Fargo and took its name in 1998, and then again as Wells merged with Wachovia 10 years later.
When Eoloff arrived at Norwest, "I was the only one hired to manage the federal portfolio," she said.
After the acquisition of Wells — which doubled the size of the company — she needed to get some help with her suddenly heavier workload. "Now we [were] close to $200 billion in assets, which required a different way of thinking about our advocacy. For starters I had to start building out the Washington office because I absolutely could not do everything myself. So I brought on two other lobbyists and then maintained an outside counsel," said Eoloff.
She had to expand the Washington office again after the Wachovia acquisition and is now in the process of building a global government affairs operation.
Washington "is the hub for all things relative to federal policy," Eoloff said. But as Wells Fargo has started to look abroad it is "thinking about a global government relations approach," which she is also overseeing.
"I have been tasked, and hopefully given the confidence from our leaders, to figure out an advocacy model for our company with each stage of its growth," Eoloff said.
But Eoloff's contributions go beyond just Wells Fargo. She used to chair the American Bankers Association's Legislative Liaison Advisory Committee, which provides a venue for financial services lobbyists to discuss policy issues. "That leadership role obviously demonstrates that she is well regarded by her peers," said Rob Nichols, president of the ABA.
Former House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank said, "Eoloff exemplified the constructive role lobbying can play in our public policymaking. While we obviously disagreed on some points, I appreciated being able to rely on her for accurate information and assessments."
BUILDING THE PIPELINE
While Washington has a long history of being a boys' club, Eoloff and Wolff have benefited from changing times. And they helped the changes along too.
When Eoloff started her career on the Hill there were more men than women, but she said she was fortunate to have bosses who looked past gender.
"Situations exist where women's views are discounted or not factored in or deemed less important because they are women — I thankfully have not had that, by and large, in my career," Eoloff said. "You need to know your stuff and it doesn't require gender to know your stuff."
In Wolff's case, some lawmakers suggested Bolten put "a more senior man in the legislative affairs role," he said. But "by the end of her tenure, those were the same guys who were telling me she did a fantastic job," Bolten said.
Disclosure requirements and gift restrictions helped change the nature of lobbying, perhaps to the advantage of many women, according to Wolff.
"It is no longer just who you know, because you can't do the dinners that had a lot of backslapping good-ol'-boy kind of thing," Wolff said. "If you are a younger woman or a woman with young kids, the challenges are always, 'Am I going to have to go home to my family before I can go out and have dinners every night?'"
Companies likely will continue to hire lobbyists from the ranks of Capitol Hill and presidential administrations, so the key to more women running Washington offices is fostering diversity in the lower ranks and then giving women a fair chance at moving up.
"If you think about the pipeline that is going to lead to some of these positions here in Washington, you are coming from an administration and you are coming from the Hill," Wolff said.
The lobbyists' outlook for improvement is generally optimistic.
"Some may argue that it is not happening fast enough, but I feel like it is heading in the right direction," Eoloff said.
LOST ART OF COMPROMISE
Political gridlock is another modern reality that the two lobbyists have confronted.
Whether the reason is a divisive presidential election, the rise of the Tea Party or a show of force by resurgent liberals, dealmaking is tough.
Compromise has become a bad word in certain circles, Wolff said. "The anti-establishment mood is out there," she said.
That sentiment, Eoloff said, has made life for lobbyists "harder and harder."
Big banks especially have drawn a lot of public ire.
"Clearly we are in a different place and there is a greater expectation and responsibility on us, so ... we have to be careful about telling the story of what works and what doesn't," Eoloff said.
Still, "you have got to be able to speak to all sides, and sometimes you might be surprised" at where there might be some agreement.
Wolff argues that lobbying is an avenue to inform policymakers. "I have worked on the Hill and know how staff is stretched thin, and as long as you are hearing all the views, then I think people should be able to make the case for why a proposal is going to impact a particular company, industry or a not-for-profit, because it is critical to have that flow of information."
In that sense, perhaps the old school still has something left to teach.
Eoloff suggested that while many of the ethics rules that have been implemented around dinners and entertainment were needed, some opportunities to come to an understanding have been lost. "I feel like the two sides are often talking past each other and they are not finding the right window," Eoloff said. "I think there has been a loss of equilibrium."