PROFILE: Lisa Witter

As a pretend presidential candidate on a reality TV show, Lisa Witter, GM of Fenton Communications, shows that PR savvy and political strategy can be a powerful duo - on and off screen.

As a pretend presidential candidate on a reality TV show, Lisa Witter, GM of Fenton Communications, shows that PR savvy and political strategy can be a powerful duo - on and off screen.

Lisa Witter is running for President - and she's serious about her campaign, even if it will not land her in the White House. "I'm running as a progressive Democrat," says the 31-year-old general manager of political PR firm Fenton Communications. "Some of the values that are most important to me are standing up for the working class, the environment, and women's issues. That's where I come from: a blue-collar background." The Everett, WA, native might have humble roots, but the political savvy she's shown as one of 10 mock presidential candidates on Showtime's series The American Candidate proves that Witter has long outgrown her rural beginnings as the daughter of a factory worker and a diesel mechanic. As part of the cable network's election-year reality show, Witter has waged a tough cross-country campaign that has included town-hall meetings, focus groups, and old-fashioned door-to-door efforts - and she's managed it all with a combination of crowd-pleasing sincerity and down-and-dirty strategy that has kept her in the game up until the final rounds. The original contestants have been whittled down to the final three, with the winner to be announced Sunday. Witter threw her hat in the ring to join the show (which finished taping earlier this summer) as a way to bring attention to causes near to her heart. "I thought that anything we can do during an election year to get buzz for the political system, I want to be part of it," she explains - even if that meant taking a hiatus from running Fenton, a job she has held for a little more than a year. Fenton Communications, which Witter joined in late 2000, is considered one of the nation's leading PR firms for left-leaning causes and boasts a client list that includes influential people and organizations, such as MoveOn.org, Radio America, and director John Sayles (the firm is helping to introduce his new film, Silver City, to progressive audiences through viral and grassroots campaigns). Witter says the chance to work with those types of causes made the firm a natural fit for her. "What I truly like is the confluence of strategy with helping people," she says. "You put those together, and it's a pretty good recipe for being politically active. I really [see] myself as a political strategist who uses media and PR to push issues to the places they need to be." Witter's liberal tendencies began at an early age. She received her undergraduate degree in politics from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a campus that prides itself on its non-competitive mascot of the banana slug and that eschewed grades until recently. She also completed a one-year certificate program at the University of Washington in nonprofit fundraising and began graduate work at the university. However, she dropped out of that program when she realized that her job with a Seattle City Council member was providing an equal education. In 2000, Witter gained her first taste of national politics when she helped run an effort to oppose the privatization of Social Security as an independent consultant based out of a home office in San Francisco. Working for the National Council of Women's Organizations and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, she helped run a national public-education and voter-mobilization campaign. "I got to know how to use media pretty well," she says. Shortly after, she joined Fenton when it merged with a small public affairs shop in San Francisco where she was working. "Her leadership abilities became immediately apparent, and we made her the head of the San Francisco office," says Fenton founder David Fenton. "She did a spectacular job of that, so then we made her the head of the company. It was a bit of a leap, but I'm glad I did it. She is the best motivator of people I have ever met in a business setting. She has created the most productive and successful work environment that we have had in the almost 23-year history of this company." For her part, Witter says she loves the feel of working for a large organization. "An agency environment is good for me because I bounce ideas," she says. When not strategizing for clients, Witter spends time growing the firm and taking care of the day-to-day tasks of running a business. "I try to do a lot of public speaking and really help strategize the future of the firm," she says. "I never thought of myself as a businesswoman, [but] I enjoy running the business almost as much as I love doing the work. I love the opportunity to bring great people together to do good things and pay them to do it. I love creating community and keeping those communities going, making a profit so that we can take care of people and have happy employees." When not focusing on Fenton, Witter indulges her love of the outdoors (she rides her bike to work every day, both for the environment and the exercise) and of reading. As for her shift from the rural West Coast to the frenetic East Coast, Witter says it's created a balanced blend in her life. "I'm half a New Yorker and half a Seattle person," she explains. "In my heart and soul I love the intensity, opportunity, smarts, and sophistication of New York. I also love the serenity, the intellectualism, and beauty of Seattle." And as for becoming President, Witter won't reveal how the show turns out, but says the experience has taught her new lessons about PR. "Something I learned that I probably should have known before is how to talk to people about controversial issues and get them to listen," she says. "You start from a place of agreement, and then you diverge to your more controversial position. The public completely embraced it. They really loved the opportunity to talk to real people and candidates." Looking at her message board on the show's website, it seems that approach has won her more than one fan. "She is my perfect candidate," raves a poster called "Pink Nightmare." " I totally see eye-to-eye with her on every issue. If I had the opportunity to elect her to a real political office, I'd be knocking on her door, begging to work on the campaign." Lisa Witter November 2000-present Fenton Communications. Currently general manager, based in New York June 2000-June 2001 Strategic consultant, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare August 1999-June 2000 Director and spokeswoman, National Council of Women's Organizations December 1997-August 1999 Legislative assistant, Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck June 1996-December 1997 Program assistant, Leadership Tomorrow

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