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An Interview with Cassie Gilson - Part 1

Politics tends to only show the tip of the iceberg – articulate candidates presenting their reasons for being elected to a crowd of thousands. But so much goes on beneath the surface, and the world of politics is what it is due to the work of lobbyists. We’ve spoken with Cassie Gilson, a lobbyist working in the state government of California, to learn more...

Cassie started out as a lawyer, and we were keen to learn more about what moving into lobbying was like:

I used to joke that in private practice that I would go to the partner-in-charge and would say if we have this person talk to this person and then we do this and this and this, we'll solve the whole problem and he would say - well, that might be right, but I asked you to go and research this code section and tell me how it applies. You always needed to do the legal and technical part, even though practically and politically I was getting to the right answer. When I came to Sacramento, I would sit in rooms and people would say you need to do this and this and talk to this person. The other thing I would say about being a lobbyist is that I would sit in hearings, and I used to sometimes joke that you would be in committee and there would be a bill that says two plus two is seven. And you would get up and testify and say, with all due respect, two plus two is not seven. But if you want to get to seven, I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and I have some ideas. But they would just say let's just compromise and say two plus two is six, and the bill would get passed! It makes no sense! But there’s politics behind it. So, I had to shake my substantive ‘lawyer eye’ in some ways, but I also needed to make sure that there is balance because the legal stuff does matter.

We also asked about how witnessing Gov. Gray Davis’s recall with a front-row seat affected her take on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s failed recall attempt.

It's interesting because how I feel about it has changed over time and I think if you talk to Governor Davis, he feels incredibly vindicated because of how it has all played out. I’m still not a big believer in recalls - unless somebody does something illegal, you elected them so unelect them the next time right? I think that the recall this time was much more cynical than the recall with Governor Davis because, with Governor Davis it was for policy reasons. What really happened with Governor Davis was the electricity crisis and the Enron scandal and people took the opportunity there to recall him. People knew he personally didn’t do anything wrong – but he was there during a catastrophic issue. That was front and centre with Gavin. OK, I get it, you don't like his COVID policies – and it's not all that dissimilar, but because Gavin’s happened in the context of a much more cynical political sphere, it felt much more opportunist.

It can’t have been easy getting all the accolades Cassie has gotten – especially considering she’s a woman in a male-dominated universe. So, we were keen to get any advice she has on overcoming gender adversity in the workplace, and to get advice on lobbying in general.

My best advice for young women is to take yourself seriously. You often see women, and I was guilty of this myself, prefacing conversations by saying things like “for what it's worth” or “I might be wrong, but”. You need to express your opinions, hold your own, and have confidence in yourself because that's where it starts. This is true in life, but especially in politics. The men sitting around the table don't know more than you, it's that they often come to the table more confident and say things more assertively, and so you need to do that. The other thing is I am a big fan of saying when you don't know the answer. Lots of folks, not just women but younger people in general when they're put in professional situations, feel like they need to always have an answer to give, or they need to make something up if they don’t know the answer. Say you’re testifying in committee and the chairman asks you a question - there is something really empowering about owning the fact that you don't know the answer and are going to figure it out. If you do that in a way that doesn't feel like you're embarrassed, you end up creating more space for yourself and people respect you in a way that they otherwise wouldn't.”

“There are a couple different paths you can take to get into lobbying, and I came from the law, which is certainly one way. In Washington DC, many of the big law firms are lobbying firms as well and have big practices. That's not the case in Sacramento - people get into this here sometimes through law firms, but oftentimes from working in government for a senator or assemblyman. You can start with work for a non-profit organisation - I do a lot of stuff in the environment. You can start working with these organisations and get into advocacy with them. And this is true with healthcare, racial equity, you name it! There are always going to be advocacy organisations that advance those causes before state legislatures and before the federal government. Companies also have lobbyists going in, who oftentimes used to be a member of the legislature or worked in a government capacity before they got there.”

Cassie shared just as much about the current state of affairs in the US government and around the world - come back next week to hear more!

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