When Dubrow talks, Congress listens

June 23, 1995|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- What makes Evy run?

It's a question many on Capitol Hill have asked since Evelyn Dubrow began working the halls of Congress 38 years ago, lobbying for the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union.

A dean among women lobbyists, the doyenne of organized labor on Capitol Hill, Evy Dubrow is a 4-foot-11-inch mover among the gray-suited shakers. Ms. Dubrow has befriended senators, secretaries, speakers of the House and doorkeepers on behalf of the thousands of sewers, hemmers, and button-hole girls (and guys) across America.

Only two present members of Congress have walked the halls longer -- 92-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond from South Carolina and Michigan Rep. John D. Dingell.

"You see her early in the morning and you see her late at night. She's the little engine that could," said Elizabeth M. "Liz" Smith, a former labor lobbyist who serves now as the political director of the American Federation of Teachers.

"She runs circles around some of the younger people. She just keeps going. It's in her genes. You just have to love her," she said.

"She wears out a tremendous amount of shoes," quipped Capitol Hill staffer Ann H. Thornburg.

Evy Dubrow arrived in Washington in 1956 with a cause -- to improve the conditions of the women and men in her union. She was a single woman of about 40 in a nearly all-male club. Today, scores of women work on the Hill -- not just taking dictation, but in positions of power and authority.

Evy Dubrow is one of the pioneers who made it possible.

When Penny S. Farthing began lobbying in 1972, she said the practice was if two college graduates with the same credentials applied for a job, the man got the professional post and the woman was offered a receptionist job.

Now, women are chiefs of staff, directors of trade associations and elected officials.

"And I cheer every time I hear of a corporation naming a woman to be [the chief of their Washington office]," said Miss Farthing, a lawyer and a former president of the American League of Lobbyists.

'You're the girl'

For Evy Dubrow, the decision to come to Washington nearly four decades ago wasn't much of a decision. A former journalist, she had worked with the textile workers union in her native New Jersey and with Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political group in New York.

Then she went to work for the ILGWU and its impassioned leader David Dubinsky, an influential figure in the American labor movement.

"When the president of the union suggests it would be a good idea for you to come down here, you don't say no," Ms. Dubrow said in her unmistakable nasal tones.

"As he put it, 'Our union is made up of lots of girls and you're the girl to go down [to Washington].' He always referred to women as girls and nobody took umbrage at it because there wasn't anybody who respected the ability of women as he did.

"I saw it as a real challenge," Ms. Dubrow said of the job offer. "When I came down here there were only three other women lobbyists."

And she was warned.

"My newspaper friends in New York and elsewhere said, 'Never go to an office and be alone with this or that congressman.' I used to laugh. It may have been that young women had trouble," said Ms. Dubrow, who doesn't mind a collegial kiss on the cheek. "I didn't have any problem . . . I was middle-aged. I made it very clear I wasn't there to judge the morals of any member of Congress. I was there to get votes on bills that I thought were important."

Being an institution has had its advantages. She refuses to give her age -- congressional staffers set up a pool on the question a few years back.

During Rep. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's tenure, she not only had the speaker's ear but his OK to sit in a doorkeeper's chair. (Today, the new speaker has barred lobbyists from the second floor during voting.)

To her, lobbying means "presenting your case and proving it."

"Therefore you talk to anybody who would talk with you," said Ms. Dubrow, whose family ate only union-baked bread. "I believe in dealing with people fairly. I occasionally speak my mind. Maybe more than occasionally."

"I have what I call the BAT theory: I don't Beg. I don't Assume I know all the answers and I don't Threaten."

Toe-to-toe with the big boys

Affable and smart, tenacious in her work, devoted to her members, Ms. Dubrow eschews the technological tools of today's lobbying. She carries no flip phone, beeper or Powerbook. Ms. Dubrow keeps her daily schedule on a card in her appointment calendar in her purse. And her yearly expenses are less that what some spend in telephone bills alone.

She stands eye-to-eye with Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich and goes toe-to-toe with the big boys, whether the late Mr. O'Neill, the barrel-bellied former speaker, or Sen. Alan K. Simpson, the 6-foot-7 Republican from Wyoming.

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