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A Visit with Jean Cantrell

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A Visit with Jean Cantrell

Jean Cantrell

Head, State & Local Government Relations
Philips Lighting

Public affairs isn’t exactly your first career, is it?

Not really. I spent 10 years in New York City, in opera and musical theater. I toured with John Davidson in a production of Oklahoma! and with Anne Jeffreys in The King and I. I did a lot of work with the [now defunct] Coachlight Dinner Theater in Connecticut. This was a “bohemian” existence, subsisting on boxes of macaroni and cheese, which you could get back then four for a dollar. I had a lot of fun, and I learned to stretch a dollar. But this was no way to make a living, and eventually you have to think about the future — about stability and benefits and all that. Fortunately, I already had my foot in the door of what would become my second career.

Doing what?

Three days a week, maybe for 15 to 20 hours, I worked for Dun & Bradstreet just to pay the rent. I did admin work, entering the amounts of PAC contributions on an IBM Selectric typewriter. This was in pre-Internet days, obviously. Eventually, Dun & Bradstreet decided they should open a Washington, D.C., office, handling government affairs, so I was asked by my boss, a wonderful man named Michael Brewer, if I wanted to move to Washington. He said he would show me the ropes and be my mentor.

So you went?


Jean Cantrell about to take the stage in Sweeney Todd

Yes, and it was a great decision. I had never given much thought to politics, and I really enjoyed it. Michael’s wife, Janet Brown, became the first executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and right away it seemed I was involved in helping stage the debate between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. We had to pull all this together in about four weeks, and I felt like I was in show business again. We were putting on a show — and I was getting more deeply involved in the Washington political scene.

And after going on to manage state government affairs at Dun & Bradstreet, you worked for Circuit City, Ross Perot’s EDS and Hewlett Packard?

That’s right, then to Philips Electronics and about two years to Philips Lighting, which was created out of the umbrella company, Philips Electronics. I have a theory that companies undergo some kind of reorganization every 18 to 20 months. That happened in 1999 at Dun & Bradstreet, for example, when the legal function was outsourced, and with it, the government affairs function. It happened at EDS, too, when HP acquired the company. I’ve always worked on the corporate side, not for lobbying firms, political campaigns or associations.

But you’ve had a fair amount of experience working with contract lobbyists, right?

Yes, and I talked about that at a Council conference on managing contract lobbyists and consultants. That was back in January. And what I emphasized was the way you often have to make compromises to achieve what you hope to achieve when you enter into one of these relationships. If you’re inexperienced, you might be tempted to hire the most well-known lobby firm in a state or locality you’re working in, or the most successful one. But there are trade-offs. You probably won’t receive the same level of personal service you might want, precisely because the most well-known firms will have a lot of other clients. All these wishes need to be kept in balance.

Are there mistakes companies tend to make when they hire contract lobbyists?

Lack of due diligence, i.e., neglecting to do a thorough check for potential conflicts of interest the lobbyist might have. The lobby firm is supposed to tell you about any conflicts, of course, but that doesn’t mean they always do or even recognize the conflict at first. So it still comes down on you.

Any other advice?

You need to look closely at your own management style and try to make sure the lobby firm you hire has a similar style. Meaning, if you expect regular updates and the firm doesn’t have the time to keep you apprised of everything they’re doing, then that might cause a problem. Again, I think that is more likely to be an issue if the firm you hire is a big one with a lot of other clients. It’s a matter of instinct, too, and intuition. You always want to look for a good fit.

Reach Jean at or 202.962.8567 or [email protected].

Additional Resources

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