The Hill: Putting GOP women in Congress
By Megan R. Wilson
Jenn Higgins only intended to spend a brief time in Washington. But roughly 16 years later, she has found her place in D.C. When she’s not lobbying on health care and tax policy, she’s working to increase the number of women — particularly Republican women — in Congress.
There are 104 female lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and while that figure is the highest ever, it’s still only about 19 percent of members. The numbers are even worse for the GOP: The 27 Republican women in Congress comprise only 5 percent of lawmakers, and four of them are retiring after this session.
“A commitment I figured out awhile ago is that we don’t have enough Republican women in Congress, and it’s something I’ve been passionate about,” Higgins said.
Higgins was raised by a single mother in the pharmaceutical industry in Hillsborough, N.C., and once dreamed of running a hospital. Now she’s a partner at Chamber Hill Strategies, a women-owned lobbying firm that specializes in health care.
“I’ve always been interested in health care, but I think never really knew that I wanted to do health-care policy. When I got here, I saw the potential to have an impact on health care in a much more tangible way and on a much larger scale, so that appealed to me,” she said. “I realized I could do it one patient at a time, or one hospital at a time, as opposed to spending my time really figuring out, really getting inside the system and figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
Even her free time isn’t really free. Asked about her hobbies, she jumps right into talking about her work with groups that empower women in politics.
There’s one called RightNOW Women PAC, which helps Republican women get elected and stay in Congress, and another, Running Start, that offers scholarships and encourages young women involved in public service.
“As a woman who is young, who is a minority, I think I felt this need to compensate by knowing policy better than anybody first. People talk about access lobbyists and substance lobbyists, and I think you have to be both as a woman,” Higgins said recently, sitting on the rooftop of her firm’s downtown Washington office, with the Capitol visible in the distance.
“You can’t just be somebody who gets meetings with people, you have to actually know your stuff inside and out. So, I took the time to learn my stuff inside and out, and then I built the political relationships I needed to build to be an effective lobbyist,” she continued. “I think your bar is a little bit higher to be credible, as a woman, as a young woman, in this town.”
Higgins came to Washington thinking she would only be here for a year and worked in the Bush administration at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) at the prodding of her boss, a hospital administrator in North Carolina.
It took her one year at CMS to decide she wanted to stay in D.C., and she has since worked at the health-care-focused political intelligence firm Marwood Group and two other K Street firms, including one run by former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who chaired a powerful tax-writing committee while in Congress.
Higgins, 37, revels in rising up the ranks in a male-dominated atmosphere and wants to use her experiences as a way to inspire others.
“I think that’s been fun for me to be in a room with all men and say I’m only one of the few women Republican donors in this room advising on strategy for the party — and I was invited into the room because I add value, not because they needed a woman in the room. Some of it is about longevity, some of it is about credibility,” she said.
“I see myself as somebody who needs to keep doing what I’m doing in order to allow for other women to say, ‘See, she’s doing it, I should be able to do it too. … If she can be in a room with all guys, then I can do that.’ ”
Her involvement about engaging women in politics goes beyond party, however.
As Washington, and the country, have become more politically divided, Higgins founded a group for her fellow K Street colleagues — HCXX — that has 20 bipartisan female members, all health-care lobbyists.
Reaching across the aisle makes her a better lobbyist, she said, because it helps her understand how Democrats see issues.
“I recognize that my party won’t always be in power, so I can’t just sit on the sidelines every time my party is in the minority,” she said.
Higgins does push back against the notion that the Republican Party doesn’t have a place for women.
“We need to have more women that are Republicans that are outspoken and that people see as a different face of our party,” she said. “The face of our party has been very homogenous for a very long time and still is.”
To that end, she chairs RightNOW Women PAC, a fundraising vehicle founded in 2012 to help Republican women get elected.
It doled out $128,000 to the campaigns of Republican Reps. Barbara Comstock (Va.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) and Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), among others, in the 2016 election cycle.
The National Republican Congressional Committee announced earlier this year that Stefanik, 33, would be helping to recruit new GOP candidates to run for Congress.
While the party appears to be taking a more proactive approach in finding female candidates for office than it had prior to the last decade, Higgins acknowledged that it faces some challenges.
“I think with the number of women who had a difference in opinion with the nominee and with President Trump’s candidacy, I think that that offset to some extent the number of women who were running to the election office to say, ‘Hi, sign me up,’ ” she said.
With a number of House seats opening up, it marks an opportunity, she says, to show them “they can be a part of the conversation,” and that there is “a place for them in the party.”
It’s important “that more women are given opportunities to move up the ladder and advance in leadership roles in the party, to advance into roles as staffers in leadership, to advance into roles as partners in lobbying firms, is only opening doors for other women down the road,” Higgins said.