The Lone Star State's Head Honcho Lobbyist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she can influence Texas politics — and national politics.
By Libby Coleman
Texas Lobbyist Andrea McWilliams’ whole life has revolved around one building: the Texas State Capitol.
She grew up across the street in the ’70s. Her dad owned a modest burger joint on S. Congress Ave, above which the family of four lived. Her father later took over a cafeteria that was directly across the Capitol lawn in a state building; the favored lunch spot for elected Texas officials was known for its homemade German bread and fresh sweet rolls. “It was always a tradition that the first day each governor would take office, they would come eat at my dad’s place to show they were accessible to everyone,” McWilliams recalls. At 15, she took a job as a messenger at the big white dome. Later, the Capitol would serve as the site for a meet-cute with her now-husband Dean, who was a fellow staffer. Today, she has the closest consultancy office to the Capitol, she says, in the whole state. It sits just across the street.
Perennially, McWilliams ranks first in the top lobbying lists in Texas, advocating for corporate interests. Clients include nationwide heavy hitters like Neiman Marcus, Office Depot, Citibank and Verizon and Texas-based companies like Ryan LLC. She also advocated for a clean-coal project in Texas that upon completion will be “the cleanest burning coal plant in the world with a staggering 90 percent capture rate,” she says. And, after beating cancer, she defended a $3 billion cancer research package. “There are two general types of advocates — those that report what happens and those that make things happen. Andrea is among the very best of those that make things happen,” her client Brint Ryan says. The work has been nothing short of profitable. In 2013 alone, she made between $1,960,000 and $3,845,000 for her work, according to Texans for Public Justice.
Andrea stands alone in a skirt.
Calvin Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University
Perhaps McWilliams is a product of her place. In Texas, the corporate lobby has “always been powerful,” says Calvin Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University — at least since the LBJ era in the 1960s. But today, lobbyists might not be able to take their power and influence for granted, as talk of ethics reform abounds. Often critiqued for nontransparency ethics violations, lobbyists are under increasing scrutiny — even in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott, says Jillson, made reform a priority in 2015, which was the “only one of his top priorities that didn’t get done. … Ethics reform is something politicians love to call for but are reluctant to do too well.” But this legislative session, a few failed 2015 bills pushing transparency measures were revived. McWilliams isn’t new to such questions, though: In 2007 and 2012, Andrea and her husband threw lavish birthday parties with now–Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and other party leaders; both times they were questioned about whether they had fully disclosed what they had spent on those legislators.
McWilliams is a smooth talker, peppering in many “dears” to our conversation. She talks of the government like its many staffers are family. And the connection isn’t entirely false — McWilliams’ mother worked 18 years for former state representative Steven Wolens as an administrative aide. That helped her get that teenage gig, and at 17 she was working for State Representative René Oliveira, filing, alphabetizing. She held down that job while earning her degree at the University of Texas–Austin and was promoted to legislative director. By 21, she became chief of staff for State Representative Richard Raymond.
Her swift ascent was sidetracked when she chose a losing horse in a race for a senate seat. But the Capitol pulled her back and she joined a firm with two other lobbyists before branching off to start her own. “A lot of people think lobbying is the stereotypical smoke-filled rooms and brother-in-law deals, but lobbying since I started has evolved tremendously,” she says. Her meetings, by contrast, are held in her home over dinner and she says she tries to paint both sides of the story for legislators.
McWilliams is a rarity for Capitol Hill, in a state where just over 20 percent of state legislators are female, compared to 24.9 percent as the national average. Looking “down the list of top lobbyists, Andrea stands alone in a skirt. The rest of them are these old boys who with slightly wider lapels could have been working the legislative corridors back in the 1950s,” Jillson says. In the United States, federal lobbyists have mostly been male, with women outnumbered approximately two to one historically, according to research organization LegiStorm. McWilliams, though, plays down any barriers she may have toppled. “It’s a lot of running after legislators, catching [them] in the hall. I have to do it in three-inch heels and a skirt,” she says.
McWilliams dipped into national politics last year, not for the first time. As an enthusiastic supporter of Ted Cruz, she became an anti-Trump voice, telling Fox Business News in March 2016: “If Donald Trump is elected, Mrs. Trump will be the first first lady that has ever posed nude.” Meanwhile, she and her husband were the youngest Bush Pioneers during George W. Bush’s first race for the White House, raising over $100,000, she says, and were the Texas cochairs for Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign in 2008.
When I talk with her, McWilliams is stuck at her favorite building, camped out and catching legislators over access to virtual education programs for children. “If something isn’t done right in this 140-day [session], you have to wait two years to undo it,” she says. It’s a madhouse as the legislative session wraps up. “Clients like to get things right in Texas, and then other states look to Texas and replicate it.”