While Elise Pickering has never officially lived in Colorado Springs, she has the responsibility for acting as its voice at the nation’s capital.
Pickering represents Colorado Springs and its Pikes Peak Federal Action Coalition, or mPACT, as a lobbyist at the bipartisan firm of Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen, Bingel and Thomas. The coalition is a group of 13 local private businesses, nonprofits and government entities.
Originally from California, Pickering spent time overseas thanks to her father, who worked as a defense contractor. After returning to the U.S. and settling in Arizona, Pickering attended college in Southern California, earned a degree in political science, and moved to Washington, D.C., where she’s lived ever since. Pickering spoke with the Business Journal this week about politics, advocacy and working for clients some 1,643 miles away.
Why were you interested in politics?
Actually I was initially interested in international politics. I wanted to go to the [U.S.] State Department, but when I graduated they had a hiring freeze, so I got a job answering phones at a law firm in Washington. I was waiting tables at night to make ends meet.
But I met a lot of young women who worked on [Capitol Hill] while waiting for the State Department thing. It piqued my interest, so I applied for a job and ended up working for the congressman from the district where I attended college. I eventually moved from answering phones and constituent mail to being a legislative assistant … to a senior legislative assistant … to legislative director and eventually a chief of staff.
Was that under one congressman?
No, I worked for three congressmen. Bill Dannemeyer from California, then Roscoe Bartlett from Maryland. It was a tough time then for Republicans to find jobs. He gave me a break and I’m eternally grateful. … And when the Republicans took the majority [in 1994], a member named John Shadegg from Arizona won, and I worked for him starting in 1995, off and on, through 2006.
What happened in 2006?
I went to work for my lobbying firm. I did take a break in between and was the congressional liaison and legislative director for the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign. That was a break for a year.
Talk about your transition to lobbyist.
I had lobbied for Southern Company, which is a utility out of the Southeast. So I had experience lobbying before, but it was for a private corporation. The multi-client thing is very different, but in a way it was kind of similar to when I was the congressional director and legislative liaison for the campaign. [As legislative liaison] I was constantly calling other offices, asking them to go on ‘Meet the Press’ or booking them to be our surrogates or working with our campaign on an event in their district and trying to manage who rides on Air Force One. It was a juggling act, like I have now. But I find it’s natural for me — handling multiple issues. There’s always something going on in Congress — the National Defense Authorization Act or the repeal of Obamacare — I get to play in different sections, and it’s interesting.
Do you think “lobbyist” carries a negative connotation?
There are bad actors in any profession. I think, sadly, some bad actors in Washington have given all of us a bad name. My motto is never to ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t have done on the Hill, but I think “advocate” would be a better word than “lobbyist.”
How did you get involved with Colorado Springs?
My husband is retired from the Air Force, where he served for 28 years. He went to the Air Force Academy and was stationed at Peterson [Air Force Base]. … He was also stationed at Buckley [Air Force Base], and I was going back and forth between there and Washington.
I got involved with Colorado Springs because I’d heard they were looking for a D.C. lobbyist. I called Stephannie [Finley Fortune]. I knew Stephannie because we were both chiefs of staff on the Hill at the same time. … She knew of me and our firm. We came in and pitched and, for me, it was great because I was already coming out every other week. I could come down [to Colorado Springs] and get to know people and get involved in the community. That was 2010.
What has been the return on investment for mPACT?
We helped a lot to get $19 million for Waldo Canyon [wildfire disaster funding]. We were very active with the delegation to secure that money. The wonderful thing about that was we were really the only other money besides [Hurricane] Sandy [emergency] funding provided that year. The odds of us getting that done — it was very difficult. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.
We’ve been involved with, during sequestration, making sure our delegation knows of our [military] assets and answering any questions they have.
When United took over Tricare [in 2012], there were a lot of problems, and we facilitated fixing that. We are kind of an echo chamber that makes sure the information from here gets back [to the Capitol] and that our delegation is equipped to do what needs to be done to help the community.
How much time do you spend in D.C.?
I spend about 90 percent of my time in D.C. As much as I love it here, I’m not a good lobbyist if I’m not there.
Is it difficult getting a sense of this community if you spend so much time away from here?
Technology helps. We have calls with mPACT every other week, and we do in-person meetings once a month. Often, when people involved in the coalition come back East, I make a point of seeing them and hearing what’s on their minds.
What are your greatest areas of focus?
Defense, transportation, cybersecurity and health care. We’re doing everything we can to be ready for an infrastructure bill for the widening of I-25. As a community, we need to be organized and ready to go with things like environmental assessments.
Tricare’s contract shifting from United to [Health Net Federal Services this year] is another focus, and people are very concerned. We’ve met with the delegation about our concerns, and they’re engaged.
Fort Carson is important to Colorado Springs. Anything new about BRACs [base relocations and closures]?
There is a lot of resistance to BRAC in D.C. We’re making sure Fort Carson is as strong as it can be, so if there is a BRAC, Fort Carson’s not part of it. One of our other priorities is Gate 19. We’re doing everything we can to make sure the gate isn’t a bottleneck getting on and off base.
What cities are we competing with?
Within Colorado, we can look at Boulder, Denver and Aurora. They’re all spending more money on lobbyists than [Colorado Springs]. But I think the public/private partnership here is beneficial because it keeps costs down for the city and the county — and the private sector has skin in the game and is helping.
I think our delegation is really supportive and the community is supportive. I think we’re doing all the things we need to be doing.
Are there strengths to the region that make your job easier?
Everybody loves Colorado Springs. I also think the outlook and support of the community is helpful.
Do you think most people in the city know they have a lobbyist representing their interests?
It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t do it for people to know I’m here. As long as the people who want to chip in and make this community as strong as it can be know I’m here and think I’m doing a good job, that’s all that matters to me.
What are your greatest challenges?
Part of the challenge of getting stuff done in Washington has been Washington’s structure for the last few years. I think a challenge [in Colorado Springs] is working together to prioritize our focuses, which I don’t think is much different from other communities. But we need to focus our efforts and speak as one voice. We’re getting there.
What changes are you seeing in D.C.?
Whether you like Donald Trump or you don’t like Donald Trump, he’s shaking things up and things are moving.
Part of our challenge is communication with him and knowing what he’s going to do. He is not a man who sleeps. He’s a man of action and, every morning when I wake up, he’s done 50 different things. Keeping up with him will be a challenge, but that’s great because that’s what people wanted.
How could his proposed policies affect the region?
I think regulatory relief will help with transportation projects, like the Interstate 25 expansion. It could affect forestland management, so we don’t have as many wildfires. There could be proactive opportunities that would put our community in a better, safer place.
I think everyone is a little nervous about what the repeal and replacement of Obamacare will look like. I think health care companies were just getting used to what it was. I think there’s a lot of uncertainty right now.
From the outside, D.C. appears to be pretty chaotic right now. Is it as chaotic up close?
Yes. I think everyone’s trying to figure it out, and I think the White House is still trying to come together, too. [Transitioning] is a big thing to get your arms around. We are only 20 days in. It feels like a lot longer, doesn’t it?