They may not be household names the way Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi are, these Washington women are wielding influence and authority behind the scenes.
Sylvia Mathews Burwell
This West Virginia-raised Rhodes scholar earned her job as Obama’s budget director partly thanks to her Clinton-era bona fides: She was a Robert Rubin protégé at the Treasury Department, went on to serve as deputy chief of staff at the White House, and then deputy budget director for Clinton’s final two years. After more than a decade in philanthropy — most recently as president of the Walmart Foundation — she returned to government this spring to help another Democratic president navigate a budget standoff with Congressional Republicans. The combined crisis of a government shutdown and looming debt default will test her mettle.
For now, Brainard, a Harvard-trained economist and onetime MIT professor, serves Treasury’s point person for all things international, a position she’s held since 2010. She could soon be helping to set monetary policy, as word leaked this fall that the President was mulling her for a seat on the Fed’s board of governors. Either way, she will remain one of the most powerful — yet low-key — forces in the Obama economic firmament.
Mills argued her way into the innermost sanctum of the Clinton world. That is, the former Army brat’s forceful defense of President Clinton during his impeachment trial won her Hillary’s notice, trust — and, almost a decade later, the job of general counsel on her failed presidential campaign. That Mills was by Hillary Clinton’s side as her chief of staff through the crucible of her State Department tenure only strengthened the bond. (Another sign that she’s hugely powerful: BlackRock Inc., the global investment firm, just named her to its board of directors.) Expect her to figure prominently if the gears of the Clinton political machine grind back to life for a 2016 run.
Jo-Marie St. Martin & Sharon Soderstrom
Congressional Republicans have endured some criticism for their demographic sameness: Heavily white, heavily male, with elected Democratic women outnumbering elected Republican women by 3-to-1 on both sides of the Capitol. But look just over the shoulders of the two party leaders and you’ll see two women in key staff roles. Soderstrom has spent her entire career in the Senate and is now at its pinnacle as the top staffer to Republican leader Mitch McConnell. St. Martin (pictured above) is similarly veteran, having spent the last 13 years working for now-Speaker John Boehner, serving as his resident institutionalist. Both are especially in demand as the leaders attempt to defuse the ticking time bomb of a pending debt default in a manner that appeases the Tea Party crowd — a task that will require creativity and guts.
The policy chief for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid moved seamlessly into the Obama orbit, joining his campaign the day after hers collapsed, and then his administration. There Tanden helped craft the healthcare overhaul that stands as his landmark domestic achievement. And now, she’s a power center unto herself as head of the left’s most potent think thank, providing liberal ballast to the White House. She’s taken a characteristically outspoken approach to the gig and has become a regular on the cable news circuit and in op-ed pages.
A former Republican congresswoman from Staten Island may not be the likeliest candidate to head Google’s DC office. After all, the search giant is known for the lefty tilt of its Mountain View executives. But that’s part of the point: As Google grows up — the company had no DC office until 2005 and now ranks No. 7 among top corporate spenders on lobbying — it is attracting more scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators on everything from antitrust issues to privacy concerns. Molinari, a business-friendly moderate during her years on Capitol Hill, is working to ensure Google covers its multiplying bases.
The Hispanic population of the U.S. is expected to more than double over the next 50 years to constitute roughly a third of all Americans. To ensure their political power keeps pace, Murguia, head of the largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy group, has focused on translating immigrants into citizens and citizens into voters. This year, her attention has trained on immigration reform, now stalled in the GOP-controlled House after a bipartisan bill cleared the Senate. But Murguia is still pushing. No bomb-thrower, she is working with likeminded corporate interests to advance the cause.