Margaret Vaughn has been a political animal since she was a kid. Now a successful Springfield lobbyist and public relations and association management specialist, Vaughn, 45, says that her earliest politics-related memory is watching the Senate Watergate hearings with her father, Frank Foran.
When November elections rolled around, they would gather the leftover Halloween candy and watch the results on TV.
"Then when I was in 6th grade, I didn't go to summer camp because it was at the same time as the Democratic Convention," she says. "I was a big Ted Kennedy fan (he was seeking the 1980 nomination) and didn't want to miss it."
A divorced mother of 13- and 15-year-old adopted sons — "one from Russia, one from Romania, so I have my own Eastern bloc fighting every morning in the kitchen" — Vaughn credits politics for her very existence.
"My dad ran for the state Senate and lost in November 1966," she says. "I was born the following November. So at my wedding I got up and thanked his opponent, because if (her father) had won he would have been in Springfield and I wouldn't have been born."
Vaughn talked about politics, lobbying and her hectic life during a recent conversation. Here is an edited transcript:
Q: Was politics always a career goal?
A: I planned to go into preventative medicine, and took all the science classes. Then I realized it was easier to tell people how to vote than what to eat.
Q: How'd you get into the field?
A: I was a college student at Millikin (University in Decatur). And I was always late for everything. This one time I was early for class and got there just as the professor was erasing the board from the previous class. And I saw that someone had written that for extra credit students could go watch a presidential debate at the Republican headquarters. I went, talked to people, ended up volunteering, and from there got an internship with Mike Tate, the state representative from Decatur.
Q: Where did lobbying come in?
A: Initially I wanted to be in political campaign management. I did that right out of college. But I found out that after an election — win or lose — you'd be out of work. So I went into lobbying.
Q: Illinois politics seems to be a mess. How do you function in that atmosphere?
A: I've come to accept it. I read a sign years ago, The 10 Commandments of Lobbying, and one was "Logic is your weakest argument." Once people understand that ...
Q: The groups you represent (margaretvaughnconsulting.com) are wonderfully diverse: the Chicago Roofing Contractors Association, the Genetic Task Force of Illinois, the Illinois chapter of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, Thompson Elevator Inspection Service. The list is endless.
A: My expertise is in the legislative process, and the rapport I have established with the players in Springfield makes me effective in getting legislation passed regardless of the issue. Just because you are a technical expert on an issue does not make you the best lobbyist. As a contract lobbyist, I have learned how to take a complex issue and break it down into laymen's terms in a few bullet points and tie it into its impact on the everyday life of a constituent. Legislators are bombarded with thousands of issues and bills each session and you have to present yours in a concise manner that everyone will understand. If people don't understand your issue, they can't help you advocate for it. But they also have to see your passion.
Q: Beyond your lobbying clients, you also head several health organizations. You're the executive director of the Illinois Rural Health Association, the Illinois Coalition of Community Blood Centers and the Illinois Surgical Assistant Association.
A: Public health groups. Not all my work is in Springfield. I report to clients, attend board meetings, board luncheons, keep in touch with everybody once legislation is passed. So it's not just doing things when the legislature is in session. It's building coalitions, working with other groups.
Q: You can't win every battle. When an initiative you worked on fails to pass, how do you roll with the punches? Is there a feeling of rejection, or do you acknowledge that's part of the job and gear up to try again?
A: Of course there is a feeling of frustration and disappointment but no issue is ever totally dead in Springfield. I think of a way to repackage the issue and expand the grass roots coalition of others who would be positively impacted by its passage and engage them in contacting their legislators.
Q: In all these arenas, has being a woman made a difference?
A: I've never felt like I was discriminated against or treated differently. I'm always working with male-dominated industries, sprinkler, construction, roofing groups. I think it shows you can get by on your merits. My track record shows I'm effective. I take time to get to know people on a personal level. The sky is always falling in Springfield. But if you know people you can work with them.
Q: Any pets?
A: Two birds. My son begged me for a dog for 10 years, so we got a bird. He did so well we got a second.
Q: But no dog?
A: I'm paying enough for someone to watch my kids. I'm not paying for someone to walk my dog.
Q: What do you do for relaxation?
A: I like to have friends over, cook out, entertain. Go to movies. I like to watch independent movies with my kids on the couch. ... I also represent carnival owners and county fairs, so in the summer we do a lot of those. I get passes. One of the perks. I like to read, autobiographies, before I go to bed. It kind of settles my mind. Melissa Gilbert, Sharon Osbourne, Tony Orlando. Pathetic. But I like how a lot of them came from nothing, got famous, but then it wasn't cool to be them anymore, and they showed this resilience. I like that.