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When Dubrow talks, Congress listens

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"She understands the best way to lobby is not through a fax, but through a one-on-one relationship with a member," says Robert M. McGlotten, the retired director of the AFL-CIO's legislative department. "In this day and age of cellular phones and laptop computers, that's no substitute for sitting down face to face and talking eyeball to eyeball."

L A broken ankle may slow her down, but it hasn't stopped her.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on a recent day, Evy Dubrow is slowly making her way down the hall of the Longworth Building. Leaning on a cane, her right leg in a soft cast, she gingerly steps into the office of Texas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.

She's the first labor lobbyist to arrive for an afternoon meeting. The staffers warmly greet her, one asking if she would like a drink, while a second props up her sore ankle on a phone book.

"How's your dad and mother?" Ms. Dubrow asks executive assistant Ann H. Thornburg.

She has known Mrs. Thornburg for 20 years and her father, former Texas Rep. Jack Hightower, before that. "He asks for you all the time," Mrs. Thornburg replies.

The exchange reflects Ms. Dubrow's style, says former Hill staffer Christopher Matthews. "She observes the Woody Allen rule. Ninety percent of life is showing up."

Hard-won respect

When Evy Dubrow arrived in the capital, Eisenhower was in the White House, the 84th Congress was in session, Sam Rayburn was speaker and the minimum wage was $1 an hour. Her ,institutional memory spans generations of Hightowers and Kennedys.

During the decades she lobbied, landmark civil rights legislation was passed, a president was assassinated and another was forced to resign. A former actor led a revolution and today the Republicans are remaking government in their own image.

Through the years, Ms. Dubrow steadfastly pushed her agenda -- minimum wage, civil rights, protections against imports, secondary boycotts, health care -- with members on both sides of the aisle.

Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, a vote was a vote.

"Evelyn Dubrow is the union label. She embodies everything good about the union movement in her passion for the American worker and worker rights," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings. The South Carolina Democrat authored the right-to-work law but joined organized labor's fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement. "When you hear it from Evelyn you know it comes from the heart and she's not some hired gun."

Robert D. Umphrey has seen the tiger and the kitten in Ms. Dubrow.

"I have worked both on issues with her and against her," said Mr. Umphrey, a former lobbyist for the American Fiber Manufacturers. "It's a lot more fun to be with her. She had tremendous contacts back then . . . first name basis with the speaker, the majority leader. As a young corporate lobbyist that was incredible to me, to watch her sit in the doorkeeper's chair in the House."

Plus, Mr. Umphrey said, "she had a tremendous PAC [political action committee], which I envied."

During the 1993-1994 election year, the ILGWU's Campaign Committee contributed $315,842 to federal candidates, the bulk of it to Democrats, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Money aside, it's the legion of garment workers Ms. Dubrow represents -- and calls upon -- that strengthens her hand in the political rough and tumble.

"In the legislative process, you don't measure effectiveness by winning because there are too many days you don't win," said Mr. McGlotten, the retired AFL-CIO official. "Are you leaving an imprint for what you are fighting for? Does someone have a better understanding on why you need a particular piece of legislation?"

Looking back, looking ahead

Ms. Dubrow greatly respects the institution and earned the respect of its members.

Along the way, Ms. Dubrow played penny ante poker with the late Missouri Congressman Richard Bolling, appreciated James Eastland's courtly manner ("Never voted with us," she'll tell you) and applauded the singing of Robert H. Michel, the former House minority leader.

This is her life's work and the work of a lifetime.

She cites her greatest accomplishment as the steady increases in the minimum wage and advances in family and medical leave.

Her greatest disappointment? The loss of the trade bills that offered import protections for textile and garment workers.

Presidents Reagan and Bush vetoed the bills.

"She had a special way of reaching out to members and speaking to them frankly and telling them what they wanted to hear and what they didn't want to hear," recalled Jack Lew, the executive director of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee during Tip O'Neill's tenure as speaker. "Access is one thing. And being listened to is another."

When the ILGWU and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union merge July 1, Evelyn Dubrow will head up the new union's political department.

"As long as I'm healthy, I don't think I'll retire," she said. "I'm way above retirement age."

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