GOP Lobbyist Joins Strategy to Repeal DOMA 

When DOMA was being written in 1996, Lehman oversaw the execution of all the subcommittee’s work, including the drafting and passage of the antigay law.



When Jo Deutsch and Kathryn Lehman are en route to Capitol Hill for meetings with Republicans, they find it best to avoid certain conversations. The debt ceiling is off the table. So are their respective political résumés — one has worked for Barbara Boxer, the other Newt Gingrich. In fact, the two lobbyists could not be more divergent on most issues — except repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

DOMA, which House Republican leadership is defending in several legal challenges, is a deeply personal issue for Lehman, because 15 years ago, she helped to write it.

“We’re not here to agree on everything. Just one thing,” said Lehman, sitting at a massive circular conference table during a recent interview at lobbying firm Holland & Knight’s D.C. office on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Though, I found out over the weekend that you like Harry Potter books,” Deutsch points out with a broad smile. “So there are two things we have in common.” Deutsch is a liberal Democrat and earlier this year became the federal director of Freedom to Marry, the organization founded by marriage equality movement “godfather” Evan Wolfson. A Smith College graduate, she has been a supporter of the National Organization for Women since junior high and has devoted decades of her career to lobbying for unions.

Deutsch and her partner, Teresa Williams, have been together for 28 years and have three children. However improbable legislative repeal of DOMA is in the near future, Deutsch’s professional raison d’être, as Freedom to Marry national campaign director Marc Solomon sees it, is to make our strongest case in D.C. with every influential player. Members of Congress, political operatives, the press corps — you name it.”

And by hiring Lehman, the organization is taking a page out of the playbook from Proposition 8 opponents, who hired polar opposites Ted Olson and David Boies to make a court win happen.

Lehman, who has a law degree from the Catholic University of America, joined Holland & Knight in 2005 after working for a who’s who of GOP lawmakers — Gingrich, Tom “The Hammer” DeLay, Dennis Hastert, and Deborah Pryce among them. As The Hill noted in November, the Republicans’ takeover of the House in the 2010 midterm election has only raised her lobbying profile in Washington.

When DOMA was being written in 1996, Lehman was chief counsel for the House Subcommittee on the Constitution for former chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois. She oversaw the execution of all the subcommittee’s work, including the drafting and passage of DOMA. At the time, the right to marry for gay people existed nowhere on Earth, yet a court case in Hawaii was stoking both homophobia and fear that states could be forced to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

When the legislation was drafted and debated in committee, Lehman was not out of the closet (not out to even herself, she said). “I have to say I do recall vividly sitting there, and listening to Barney Frank, who was the ranking member of the subcommittee during the hearings. And Barney’s saying, I just don’t understand how if I’m in a loving, committed relationship with my partner, how it hurts somebody else’s marriage,” she said. “I remember thinking at the time, Yeah, I’m not sure about that, either.

Lehman isn’t the only one involved at the time who’s had a change of heart. Rep. Bob Barr, the bill’s original sponsor, now supports its repeal, arguing that DOMA is “neither meeting the principles of federalism it was supposed to, nor is its impact limited to federal law,” as he wrote in a 2009 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times.

“I’m not an activist personality. I’ve been a staffer my whole career,” Lehman explained of her new involvement in lobbying for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal DOMA. “It’s not a secret that I’m gay, it’s not a secret that [Lehman’s partner] Julie [Conway] and I have been together for seven years. ... But I really felt like it was time to step up, to step out. And I’ve recognized the work of people who I don’t really agree with politically in the gay and lesbian community, but who have done a lot of work to make my life better.”

This spring, Lehman joined forces with Freedom to Marry’s Deutsch on the recommendation of Campbell Spencer, a vice president at public affairs firm DCI group who previously worked as Midwest regional director in the Obama White House’s Office of Political Affairs. Spencer describes Lehman as a well-respected lobbyist with the key Hill relationships needed to get in the door. What’s more, “She has this transformational narrative,” Spencer said. “She can tell a story of growth and evolution, which is a story a lot of folks can relate to and understand.”

Deutsch covers Freedom to Marry’s lobbying efforts alone when it’s time to talk with Democratic lawmakers. But she and Lehman work together on the GOP side and are usually joined by Log Cabin Republicans executive director R. Clarke Cooper in meetings.

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