“Nobody grows up thinking ‘I want to be a lobbyist,’” admits Heather Podesta, “and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be doing what I’m doing. You change a lot in 30 years.”
“Change a lot” may be an understatement for how this self-described “proud daughter of Rochester” transformed herself from an “introverted,” “geeky” high school “jock” into a woman widely known in Washington, D.C., as a power player, patron of the arts, and owner of one of the largest lobbying firms in the nation’s capital.
Recently, I spoke with Heather Podesta by Zoom. We discussed her Rochester childhood, her remarkable career in D.C., and why she thinks more people should think about moving to Rochester.
An edited transcript of our interview follows. But first, some background.
Heather Podesta grew up as Heather Miller, one of two daughters of Sandy and Jill Miller of Brighton. Sanford Miller is distinguished professor of mathematics at SUNY Brockport. Leslie Jill Miller, now retired, was an executive with Xerox Corp.
Compared to Heidi, her younger sister, Podesta recalls, she was the one more given to debate and argument.
“My parents saw early on that my sister and I had very different personalities,” she told me. “I was the argumentative one and Heidi was the caring one. So, by the age of 10, it was determined, ‘Heather, you’re going to be a lawyer and Heidi, you’re going to be a doctor.’
Both predictions came true. Heather’s sister, Heidi B. Miller M.D., who trained at Yale University and Harvard Medical School, is a primary care physician in St. Louis, Mo.
At Brighton High School, Podesta says she was a “a geeky jock” who lettered in track, gymnastics and field hockey—and captained the team.
During high school and college summers, she worked at Gala Sound in Pittsford. “I would wear all-black, too-tight clothing and greet people as they came in to listen to various sound systems,” she recalls. “But little did I know when I was showing Harman Kardon systems that someday I’d actually know Sidney and Jane Harman.”
She later met Jane Harman, a U.S. representative from California, and came to know the couple socially.
Podesta got her first taste of politics while an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. In her senior year, she received a John Gardner Public Service Fellowship and was placed in the office of Sen. Bill Bradley (D-NJ). “As a legislative fellow, I didn’t have to do the usual rotation of answering phones and was fortunate to jump into substantive work.” That included passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which, says Podesta, now feels “quaint, and many, many years ago.”
Podesta then attended law school at the University of Virginia. “When I started law school, it was never my plan to practice,” she says, “I was just really interested in public policy.”
After earning her J.D., Podesta worked at a transportation law firm where she represented maritime and aviation clients. “I had terrific mentors,” she recalls, “who taught me how to be a lawyer, give business advice, and always, always pay attention to detail—and that no job was too small not to do well.” She later went in-house with the Air Transport Association—representing the U.S. airline industry—serving as assistant general counsel.
In her late 20s, Podesta traveled the world representing U.S. carriers in international climate change and aviation forums, becoming an expert on issues such as aircraft noise and emissions.
Beginning in 2002, Podesta worked for Democratic members of Congress who sat on the House Committee on Ways and Means, working on the Bush tax cuts and pension reform. Some years later, she was recruited to be a partner at Blank Rome, a major U.S. law firm.
In 2003, Heather married Tony Podesta. He ran a major lobbying firm, the Podesta Group. His brother, John, who cofounded the firm, went on to serve as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. It was her third marriage, his second. Washington’s Democratic elite—including then House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi—attended what Washingtonianmagazine described as a “head-turning occasion.” The couple bought a $3.9 million home in the exclusive D.C. neighborhood called Kalorama—two doors down from where the Obamas now live.
In 2007, Podesta started her own lobbying firm, Heather Podesta + Partners. “It was the last two years of the Bush White House,” she says, “when Pelosi became speaker and nobody knew House Democrats. So, people would get referred to me.”
Early clients included Hearst Communications, Aramark, and global health services provider Cigna. All are still clients today.
“Hearst reached out the first month,” Podesta recalls, “because they had two of their reporters looking at jail time for protecting a source. We had success in that case, and when you are successful in Washington, people hear about it quickly. We were admired because we were new, smart, substantive, worked hard, and were growing fast. We got results. By the end of the year, we had 20 clients and revenues of $2.6 million. Later, when Obama got into office, we kept growing. Interestingly, when Republicans came into office, we still kept growing.”
As a couple, the Podestas built a large collection of contemporary art—more than 1,000 pieces including paintings, photographs, and sculptures. This included Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” portrait of Barack Obama, which had served as Obama’s main campaign image, and which they donated in 2009 to the National Portrait Gallery. They donated art to other museums as well, including the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim.
Heather and Tony Podesta divorced in 2014. She purchased her own $3.8 million home in the Kalorama neighborhood. The couple remains on cordial terms.
Heather Podesta’s lobbying firm, meanwhile, has continued to thrive. Now called Invariant, it boasts additional major clients such as Apple, PepsiCo, GlaxoSmithKline, Uber, Marriott, Toyota—as well as Rochester-based Constellation Brands.
Press reports often describe Invariant, with more than 35 employees and annual revenues of over $20 million, as the largest woman-owned lobbying firm in the country, but Podesta notes her firm is, in fact, the largest lobbying firm individually owned by anyone–man or woman–in the country.
Podesta also is a major political donor. Public records show that in 2020 she has donated $345,000—virtually all of it to Democratic causes and candidates, Rep. Joe Morelle among them—ranking her in the top five givers among congressional lobbyists.
Recently, Podesta became engaged to Stephen Kessler, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker whose latest documentary, “Paul Williams Still Alive,” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. He is cofounder of The Comedy Resistance, a nonprofit which registers young people to vote.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Podesta told me, with no exaggeration.
The following is an edited version of my Zoom interview with Podesta conducted in mid-October.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What would somebody at Brighton High School have had to know about you—that maybe wasn’t evident—to have predicted your career success as a lobbyist?
HEATHER PODESTA: There isn’t one thing that people would have identified from high school that would say “lobbyist.” I wasn’t someone who was viewed as overly social. In fact, I was an introvert. I was an ambitious but awkward kid, kind of a geeky athlete—always in my running sneakers with my jeans too short and my sports socks showing, so clearly, I wasn’t paying attention to fashion. It wasn’t until my earlier 30s that I understood what it meant to dress for success. I don’t think I once wore a cute dress to high school—now a killer dress is my work uniform.
I’m still an introvert, by the way, just a highly socialized one. I listen intently and pay close attention to people, group dynamics, and what is important to an individual. Being able to read a room and people is one of my superpowers.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Lobbying, to some people, has a sinister connotation. How would you explain what it really is?
PODESTA: So, shorthand, I solve political problems and I create political problems. I am a lawyer through and through, but my audience is Congress and the executive branch, and I make sure that corporations, trade associations, and individuals have the best possible representation as people formulate laws and regulations.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve been doing this work a long time. Do you still get a buzz from lobbying?
PODESTA: I do. I find it hugely challenging. Part of it is that the issue areas are so diverse: tax policy, environmental policy, energy policy, health care policy, tech policy. Every day I’m challenged with problems that need to be solved. Everything is a brain teaser. I get to work on some of the biggest policy issues that matter in our country.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any specific cases that have meant a lot to you or that you’re particularly proud of.
PODESTA: I’m incredibly proud of the work we’re doing, and we have been hugely successful on behalf of our clients, but I’m not in the business of kissing and telling—that philosophy has worked pretty well for the 15 years that I’ve had the company.
ROCHESTER BEACON: From your client list, the only company I see with a Rochester tie is Constellation Brands. Are there others with a local connection?
PODESTA: No, but I would love to have more reasons to come back home.
ROCHESTER BEACON: We have to get you the Wegmans account.
PODESTA: Exactly. Peter, get on that.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Your firm is now called Invariant. Is there a story behind that name?
PODESTA: There is. For the first 10 years of the firm, it was called Heather Podesta + Partners, but I always wanted to change the name. To me, it sounded girly and small and limited, when in fact we were growing and it was much more than me. But the question becomes: What do you call yourself if not your name? I was trying to identify something that captured the spirit of what we do and I was watching “The Crown” on Netflix and in the coronation scene the word “invariant” was used and I thought to myself, ‘That’s such a fantastic word that’s fallen out of favor, but break apart the syllables and it means exactly what it says: something fixed and unmovable.’ Our clients can rely on Invariant at a time of great political uncertainty and know we will deliver for them.
ROCHESTER BEACON: For a long time, your firm employed only Democrats, but I understand now you’re bipartisan. Is that right?
PODESTA: For the first several years of the firm, we were known for explaining business to Democrats and Democrats to business. To meet the needs of our clients, we started adding Republicans to the firm six years ago. Now we get to explain business to everyone from progressives to the Freedom Caucus.
ROCHESTER BEACON: And if the Democrats sweep the elections as predicted, will you still remain bipartisan?
PODESTA: Oh, yes. I’m hugely proud of the bipartisan team. We’re able to give the best possible advice to our clients because we know what Democrats are thinking, what Republicans are thinking, what Trump Republicans are thinking, and to figure out a strategy and the messaging to move things.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Even so, you yourself remain active on the Democrat side, is that right?
PODESTA: Yes, and I’m pleased to raise funds and donate money to help as many Democratic candidates as I can in this election cycle. I’m also active in philanthropy—giving back to the community is really important to me. It’s something I stress within our organization and something I learned in Rochester—the importance of having community and giving back.
ROCHESTER BEACON: And are you continuing with your interest in contemporary art?
PODESTA: I am. I’m on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. I am an active supporter of the arts and each year donate works to museums. I recently gave a piece to the Albright-Knox (in Buffalo). Can you hold on?…
(At this point, Podesta paused the Zoom interview. When she returned, she was holding a small, black dog.)
PODESTA: We have a new puppy that requires a lot of attention and Steve [fiancé Stephen Kessler] just handed the dog off. This is Thunder. It’s Thunder’s first interview! We lost our other dog, unfortunately, two months ago from old age and just got this puppy six days ago—an English black lab.
ROCHESTER BEACON: You’ve enjoyed access to the very top layers of Washington society and are regularly listed among the “Top 50” this and “Top 50” that in the nation’s capital. That’s pretty heady for a Brighton High grad.
PODESTA: The first time Sen. (Edward) Kennedy said my name without me having a name tag stapled to my shirt—it was definitely a “pinch me” moment. Like, how did Heather from Brighton end up here and have the good fortune to have helped and supported candidates and presidents, to be on a first-name basis? Nothing from high school prepared me for that and it’s not anything I could’ve expected. I still feel the magic every time I go into the White House or the Capitol and get to participate in some small way in what it takes to make this country run a little better.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Have you visited the Oval Office?
PODESTA: Yeah, I have.
ROCHESTER BEACON: With which president?
PODESTA: I said no kissing and telling!
ROCHESTER BEACON: I wonder if you follow the local news—it’s been a difficult year for Rochester. We had the death in police custody of Daniel Prude, the police chief was fired, the rest of the top police leadership resigned, and the mayor has been indicted for campaign finance fraud.
PODESTA: I do follow Rochester politics and yeah, it’s very upsetting; it’s been a tough year. What’s happened on the policing front is really upsetting. This is an issue I care a lot about. I serve on the D.C. Police Foundation Board and so understand how important meaningful engagement in the community can be and what happens with a lack of communication. It’s just, it’s very … I have no words.
ROCHESTER BEACON: If you were hired to lobby for Rochester—to make life better in this community for everyone—what would you lobby for?
PODESTA: So, first, I would be incredibly honored to represent the city and its institutions. I’d pay attention to issues like economic development and infrastructure. This should be a growth time for a place like Rochester. Now that people don’t have to live in big cities, having the possibility of a really lovely home and great schools and being able to work for any company in the world, I would think that folks should be thinking about moving to Rochester.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, do you get back to town much?
PODESTA: I do a couple of times a year. I come home for the holidays and I’m always happy to visit Constellation’s headquarters and the team there.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Any favorite spots to visit while you’re here?
PODESTA: No, just really happy being with my folks and visiting friends I’ve grown up with. Of course, a visit is not complete without a trip to Wegmans. That’s mandatory.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Pittsford Wegmans—the mothership?
PODESTA: The mothership, yes.