Opinion

Liz Robbins Dies at 76; Broke Glass Ceiling as a Washington Lobbyist

Liz Robbins, who after opening the country’s first woman-owned lobbying firm in 1977 became one of Washington’s most successful and most beloved operators — no easy feat for someone in her profession — died on Saturday at her home in East Hampton, N.Y. She was 76.

Peter Corsell, a close friend, said the cause was metastatic breast cancer.

Though she carried a few major corporate clients in her portfolio, Ms. Robbins was best known for her work on behalf of social policies, like children’s health care and poverty reduction, and nonprofits like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Authors Guild.

After Congress changed the tax code in 1986 to limit the deductions available to book authors, she organized an all-star blitz on Capitol Hill, unleashing writers like David Halberstam, Christopher Buckley and J. Anthony Lukas on Congressional tax committees. Congress later walked back the change.

“Members of Congress loved her,” Hilary Rosen, a lobbyist who started her career with Liz Robbins Associates, said in a phone interview. “People think of lobbyists making members of Congress do slimy things for money, whereas Liz would give them something that would make them feel good, like foster care or unemployment insurance.”

One of her first efforts, in the mid-1970s, was to win federal funds to subsidize foster care and adoption in New York City. Washington was unenthusiastic about sending money to New York — this was the era of “Ford to the City: Drop Dead” — so she arranged a coalition of like-minded governments across the country to build pressure, then argued that the funds would reduce government spending by getting children into stable homes.

At a time when women lobbyists were even rarer than women members of Congress, she prowled Capitol Hill relentlessly, toting accordion files stuffed with charts and presentations, making her case one representative at a time.

“Whenever you met with Liz, you knew that she was going to be extremely well prepared, knew the issues really well and was very passionate about it,” Marty Russo, a former Democratic representative from Illinois, said in a phone interview. “Liz was a rock star.”

For years, every summer she held a weekend-long party at her home in East Hampton, which she playfully referred to as Congressional Camp. Mr. Russo and his family were frequent attendees, along with several other members, who might find themselves chatting with some of Ms. Robbins’s many friends from outside the Beltway: Paul Newman might stop by to test out a tomato sauce recipe; Alec Baldwin might be down for basketball.

“She was a great convener of folks,” Heather Podesta, a lobbyist, said in a phone interview. “She knew the senators and members really well. They were friends that she liked, lived, played and worked with.”

Ms. Robbins was especially close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, whom she and her husband, the former TV anchor Doug Johnson, met at the 1980 Democratic National Convention in Manhattan. They became fast friends: Ms. Robbins went to Arkansas to help Mrs. Clinton on child care policy, and she hosted dinners for Mr. Clinton in New York, where she introduced him to potential donors for his presidential campaign.

In 1996, Mrs. Clinton hosted a baby shower for Ms. Robbins at the White House, and Ms. Robbins was a top fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

After Ms. Robbins went into home hospice care in late December, the Clintons came to visit for a long dinner on Dec. 30.

Ms. Robbins, center, at a SeriousFun Children’s Network event honoring her in New York City in 2004. With her, from left, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ms. Robbins’s daughter, Robin, and Chelsea Clinton.Credit…Larry Busacca/Getty Images

“If awards were given for friendship, Liz would have swept every category over the 40 years I knew her,” Mrs. Clinton said in a statement. “We supported each other through our experiences in parenting, politics, traveling, sharing Christmas visits, trading books, stories and adventures, which she was planning right up until the end of her life.”

Elizabeth Jane Robbins was born on July 8, 1946, in an elevator at New York Hospital (now Cornell Weill Medical Center).

“My mother always said I was in a hurry to get where I was going, so that was perfect,” she later joked.

Her father, Manuel Robbins, was a lawyer who worked for a variety of city agencies, including the Manhattan district attorney’s office under Thomas Dewey, and her mother, Eleanor (Landau) Robbins, worked in communications for the American Red Cross.

Liz grew up in Scarsdale, a New York suburb. She studied philosophy at Wheaton College, outside of Boston, and graduated in 1967.

Along with her husband, she is survived by her daughter, Robin Johnson Tokley, and a grandson.

She worked in advertising in New York and spent a stint in Washington, working for several congressional committees. She returned to New York to join a new city program centered on childhood development.

She didn’t intend to go back to Washington. But she soon realized that the financially constrained city could do even more by accessing federal funds; it just had to ask. And she knew the right way to ask.

“They went broke and sent me back to Washington to do some lobbying,” she told Roll Call in 2005. “And so a lot of broke places started calling me up.”

By 1981 she was lobbying for San Francisco, Berkeley and the state of Michigan, as well as New York City. Though she was a Democrat, she worked both parties, and developed relationships with top Republican senators. During tough negotiations over a child care bill with Bob Packwood of Oregon, he challenged her to a game of gin rummy. She won $12, and his vote.

“She was like a snapping turtle; she wasn’t going to let go,” George Miller, a former Democratic representative from California, said in a phone interview. “One thing you learned about Lizzie, she was not going away.”

By the early 2000s, Ms. Robbins was spending more and more of her time on nonprofit work. She teamed with Mr. Newman to develop SeriousFun, a network of summer camps for children with serious illnesses.

After commiserating with another close friend, the actor Alan Alda, over the inability of many scientists to engage with the general public, they corralled funding and support from Stony Brook University to create the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

“I think to be a good lobbyist, you have to be an eloquent listener,” she said in a 2020 interview with the journalist Pattie Sellers. “I think to be a good lobbyist, you have to be passionate and care about what you do. I know there are good lobbyists who can do it for the money. I just can’t do that.”

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