PROFILE: Passion paves Molinari's path from politics to PR

From attaining a congressional seat to her current role as president of Ketchum Public Affairs, Susan Molinari has made a career of being involved in - and winning - tough battles.

From attaining a congressional seat to her current role as president of Ketchum Public Affairs, Susan Molinari has made a career of being involved in - and winning - tough battles.

Susan Molinari has a habit of being the right woman at the right time. In 1990, when her father decided to surrender his seat in Congress, Molinari was already a member of the New York City Council and a rising star in the Republican Party. Hence the decision to take over the family business was easy, though the election was anything but. Days before her first primary, a lawyer's mistake got Molinari kicked off the ballot. (The judge in the case, she notes, was the sister of the man her father had beaten to win his seat in Congress.) The decision was reversed in time, but the general election proved no less troublesome. "In November, I won the election after a 10-day recount by 160 votes ," she recalls. So despite what her critics might say, the seat wasn't handed to her. The same can be said of her recent rise to director of Ketchum's public affairs practice. Molinari had been CEO and president of Ketchum's lobbying firm, The Washington Group, for about a year when the spot opened up. Plus, she seemed to be exactly what the agency was looking for: a big political name to draw business to a sagging practice. Much like her father's open seat, the solution to Ketchum's problem was right under their nose. Unfortunately, that seems to be the last place they looked. "Given the financial pressure, you want to see a fairly quick return," explains Liz McLean, general manager of Ketchum's Washington office. "So we started a dialogue with Mike [McCurry], and at the end of the day - I love Mike - but the passion just wasn't there. So then we started a dialogue with Susan; it was like this is the perfect solution." But even then it wasn't a speedy process. "The Washington Group was coming off earn-out," she continues, "so that dictated the timing as well. We knew this was what we wanted, but we realized we'd better wait a little bit." Molinari's spirits don't seem terribly dampened for the delay. Indeed, it's hard to imagine her spirits being dampened by much of anything. One hesitates to use phrases like "bundle of energy" or "sprightly" when referring to a former member of the House of Representatives - much less someone who achieved a higher rank in the Republican Party than any woman before her. But the shoe certainly fits. Born and raised in Staten Island, NY, Molinari, 45, has been around politics her entire life. Her father, Guy, was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1974 to 1980, when he was elected to the House. She claims her parents didn't breed her for big-time politics, though democracy was an everyday thing. "I'm an only child, so there's only three of us," she explains. "Every Sunday morning, we'd vote on what we would do that day." (And, yes, there was lobbying.) Preparation for her political career started at the State University of New York at Albany, where she earned a bachelor's and a master's in political communications. Skipping the private sector, Molinari soon became the only Republican on the New York City Council. She was a member of the House by 31 and vice chair of the House Republican Conference by 36. It wasn't long before the telegenic moderate was being talked about as one of the GOP's brightest White House prospects. As such, she was chosen to give the keynote speech at the 1996 convention. That was pretty much the end of the road. The speech was not well-received. Many found it shallow; some called it patronizing. Molinari later remembered it as a "painful experience." Within a year, she announced her retirement from politics. But a closer look reveals other pressing changes taking place in Molinari's life at the time. She was four years into her second marriage, to fellow Congressman Bill Paxon (R-NY) - his proposal to her, in the middle of a budget debate, was the first ever on the House floor -and together they had just welcomed their first child, Susan Ruby. "I was getting angry because my 6-month-old was falling asleep under the lights of the US Capitol, and I knew that wasn't right," she says. "My personal priorities shifted." That shift brought her to CBS, and what she laughingly calls "the longest nine months of my life," as co-anchor on a too-fluffy Saturday morning "news" show. She doesn't like to talk about it now, but sums up the experience thus: "People still tell me they remember me from 'that cooking show.'" Now sitting in her K Street office - where art from her two daughters competes for wall space with pictures of GOP bigwigs - Molinari seems pleased. Omnicom, no doubt, shares that sentiment, as lobbying revenues jumped 85% to $9 million in 2002 after she took over, and the group is now ranked fifteenth on Roll Call's list of the top lobbying firms in DC. She concedes that she still has much to learn about PR, but tempers it by swearing, with utmost sincerity, that when she was a little girl, she didn't dream of being a ballerina or running for office like her dad. "I dreamt of being in public relations," she says. Maybe it's the truth. Maybe she's saying it because she knows her audience. Either way, it's a good sign she's the right woman for the job. ----- Susan Molinari 2004 President, Ketchum Public Affairs 2001 President and CEO, The Washington Group 1999 President, Susan Molinari LLC; senior public affairs consultant, Fleishman-Hillard 1998 Fellow, John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard 1997-1998 Co-anchor, CBS Saturday Morning 1990-1997 Representative, NY 13th district 1985-1990 Minority leader, New York City Council 1983 Ethnic community liaison, Republican National Committee

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