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Washington’s Most Powerful, Least Famous People

Welcome to TNR’s 2011 List Issue. In putting the issue together, we had one major priority: to avoid creating a power list featuring anyone who regularly dominates headlines. Instead, we had a different idea: What if we revealed something about D.C. by documenting who quietly wields power? From there, we began to hatch other ideas for lists, and we realized that—while they can certainly be cheap gimmicks—lists can also convey a lot about a city.

Below is the first list from the issue: Washington’s most powerful, least famous people. We’ll feature the other nine lists at TNR Online in the days to come.

Publisher of Politico

The day after the 2011 White House Correspondents’ dinner, Robert Allbritton hosted brunch at his $24 million Georgetown home. On the 250-person guest list? Valerie Jarrett, Janet Napolitano, and Rick Perry. But Allbritton’s real influence doesn’t come from his VIP-laden parties; as chairman and chief executive of Allbritton Communications, the fortysomething presides over a mini-media empire, owning a handful of TV stations and—most importantly—Politico, the obsessive-compulsive news organization that has changed journalism in D.C. since its launch in 2007. A banking scion (his father owned Riggs Bank, a D.C. institution that handled the finances of embassies, as well as the Washington Star), Allbritton was always more interested in the media side of things. At 25, his father placed him in charge of Allbritton Communications, which he expanded by buying a number of TV stations. After an unsuccessful run as Riggs CEO in the early 2000s (the bank was under federal investigation for ties to Augusto Pinochet and was eventually sold to PNC), Allbritton went back into the news business and founded Politico. Though his efforts to monopolize Washington journalism haven’t been entirely successful (TBD, his hyper-local news site, laid off half its editorial staff after just six months), Allbritton has reshaped the way we follow politics.

Deputy Secretary of Defense

Ashton Carter has advised nearly every major strategy group, research council, and governmental panel on issues of international security. As President Bill Clinton’s first-term assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, he was influential on nuclear arms-control issues, including successful efforts to disarm Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan as nuclear nations. As President Barack Obama’s former under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, Carter had been the Pentagon’s main weapons purchaser for the past two years. And, last month, he was confirmed by the Senate as deputy secretary of defense. In his new position, acting as Leon Panetta’s close adviser, Carter will affect the shape and scope of military budget cuts. It was perhaps a testament to his enormous ability that, in a time of bitter partisan bickering, the Senate confirmed him quickly and unanimously.

Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

As the leader of the largest biomedical-research financer in the world, Francis Collins wields tremendous power over the direction of science in this country. While he has been the subject of some attention (a piece in The New Yorker called him “a model of geek cool”), his profile in no way measures up to his influence. Appointed by Obama in 2009, Collins first made his mark at Yale in the 1980s, where he developed a new, more efficient way to search chromosomes for specific genes. Later, at the University of Michigan, he and a team used this method to discover the genes that cause cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. In the 1990s and early aughts, he led the Human Genome Project, steering the project to completion ahead of schedule and under budget. Interestingly, Collins is a devout evangelical Christian, who argues in his New York Times best-seller, The Language of God, that belief in a personal God can be combined with a scientific outlook. This background made conservatives more amenable to his appointment and has uniquely qualified him to help the Obama administration navigate the stem-cell debate. His ability to explain highly technical science in a simple manner has made him many more D.C. friends—which might prove useful in his defense of NIH’s sizable budget.

Director of Public Policy for the Americas at Google

As late as 2006, the entirety of Google’s federal lobbying office consisted of one person: Alan Davidson. At Booz Allen Hamilton in the 1990s, Davidson designed information systems for NASA; at the Center for Democracy and Technology in the ’90s and 2000s, he became a respected voice on issues like encryption, fair-use, and network neutrality. Today, Davidson is the face of Google’s argument that search neutrality would stifle the corporation’s ability to innovate. But the man The Wall Street Journal once identified as Google’s only lobbyist no longer works alone. He put together Google’s nascent federal-relations team, and both he and his cohort are a regular presence on Capitol Hill. This May, at the first hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, Davidson was on hand to explain Google’s privacy policy.

Deputy Director of the National Economic Council (NEC)

A 2009 New York Times headline sums up a certain perception of Brian Deese: “the 31-year-old in charge of dismantling G.M.” Deese, who abandoned his Yale Law degree to work for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as an economic adviser, moved into a similar position on Obama’s campaign when she conceded. Deese was the first full-time member of Obama’s automotive task force and shaped the intervention in Detroit. He is usually credited with saving Chrysler from liquidation by showing that such a move would cost the government—in the form of unemployment benefits, Medicaid expenditures, and local bankruptcies. Even though he has no formal economic training, Deese impressed those around him—including then-NEC Director Larry Summers—with his acumen. No longer 31, and no longer charged with completely refashioning the U.S. automobile industry, today Deese is deputy director of the White House’s NEC and special assistant to the president. He is a major part of the NEC’s public face—answering White House “office hours” questions through Twitter, defending Obama’s home-refinancing program, or explaining the benefits in Obama’s jobs act for schools.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy

Surprisingly few people have heard of Nancy-Ann DeParle, the deputy White House chief of staff. And surprisingly few people in Washington appreciate her influence, which extends beyond the West Wing. In 2009, she became Obama’s top adviser on health care reform—arriving fairly late to an administration already loaded with type-A advisers. But DeParle, a veteran of the Clinton administration, was no political novice. She consolidated power, and, no less important, she gained Obama’s trust. When the president asked her to stay on after the Affordable Care Act became law in order to oversee its implementation, she agreed. And she’s still doing that, even though her portfolio has grown. The headlines on health care reform concern a possible congressional repeal, but the real action is in how the administration implements it: How quickly should the government crack down on substandard insurance plans? How should it regulate rates? The answers to those questions will affect one-sixth of the economy—and they will come from DeParle’s office.

Special Prosecutor, Department of Justice

In 2008, U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey tapped Assistant U.S. Attorney of the District of Connecticut John Durham to conduct a threeyear investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation tapes as a special prosecutor for the Department of Justice. Known as an effective mafia-busting prosecutor in New England for decades—he handled some of the most sensational FBI trials in history, including one that served, in part, as inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s film The Departed—Durham had earned a nonpartisan, camera-shy, “white knight” reputation in the Northeast before his move to D.C. During the tape-destruction investigation, he was asked by Attorney General Eric Holder to take on an additional assignment: determining whether to undertake a wide-ranging criminal investigation into CIA interrogation abuses. Earlier this year, after reviewing dozens of allegations, he recommended closing most of those cases—but he did advise continued inquiry into the deaths of two prisoners in U.S. custody. It’s less than advocates of widespread accountability had hoped for, but it leaves the door open for at least some reckoning with Bush-era abuses.

President of Elmendorf Ryan

Even people who don’t recognize Steve Elmendorf’s name will recognize the policies that bear his hidden imprint: NAFTA, McCain-Feingold, and the Iraq war resolution, to name a few. Those bills are part of the legacy that Elmendorf built as a high-powered Hill staffer and long-time chief of staff to Representative Dick Gephardt, the former Democratic House leader. Elmendorf was widely known as Gephardt’s “guru” in the House, and he was crucial in spurring the congressman to run for president. After Gephardt’s 2004 campaign folded, he was snatched up by John Kerry’s team. Since then, he hasn’t strayed far from the presidential periphery; through a friendship with David Plouffe, Elmendorf enjoys easy access to Obamaworld, while also maintaining a position as a lobbyist at his five-year-old firm Elmendorf Ryan, where clients include Citi, Ford, the Human Rights Campaign, Microsoft, the NFL, and Verizon. A final sign of Elmendorf’s lordliness: a permanent reservation at Tosca, a chic Italian restaurant in downtown D.C., midway between the Hill and the White House.

Parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate

In March 2010, a usually anonymous Capitol Hill careerist had the fate of health care reform handed to him. As parliamentarian of the U.S. Senate—resident expert on its thousands of arcane rules and procedures—Alan Frumin was essentially in charge of determining the validity of the Affordable Care Act. Because the bill passed through reconciliation—a budgetary process that gave Democrats a way around the threat of a filibuster by Republicans-each provision had to be deemed relevant to the underlying budget (that is, taxes or spending) before it could be included in the bill. While Frumin’s recommendations are, strictly speaking, only advisory, senators are usually loath to ignore them. In the end, Frumin ruled out only two minor provisions—clearing the way for health care reform to become law. The publicity-shy, 64-year-old human encyclopedia of parliamentary process will probably find himself in the spotlight at some point again. In an era of increasing gridlock, with a growing emphasis on deficits and debt reduction, reconciliation could be a vehicle for future legislation. If this turns out to be the case, Frumin will continue to play a central role as the gatekeeper for what gets in and what stays out of bills.

Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC)

For 18 years, Gary Gensler pursued a highly successful, highly lucrative career at Goldman Sachs, where he made partner. Then, as part of Robert Rubin’s team at Treasury in the late ’90s, he was at the center of the bipartisan push to deregulate the financial sector. Now, he’s policing the financial sector as chairman of the CFTC, one of the agencies charged with drafting many of the rules created by the Dodd-Frank Act. That responsibility has made the CFTC, according to Bloomberg, “one of the hottest lobbying spots” in Washington. One commissioner called the “volume and intensity” of the Dodd-Frank lobbying push “unprecedented,” and Gensler is at the center of it. Gensler’s agency has issued several new rules governing the derivatives market and requiring new levels of transparency and oversight, but over 40 rules have yet to be written—and you can expect the lobbyists to continue their crusade until the ink has dried on the very last one.

Partner at Patton Boggs LLP

Over the past few decades, Benjamin Ginsberg has constructed a career as perhaps the preeminent Republican election-law expert in the country. In the early ’90s, Ginsberg was chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, where he led the Republicans’ redistricting strategy after the 1990 census. The key moment in Ginsberg’s career came in 2000, when he served as a legal adviser to George W. Bush’s team during the Florida recount, helping to land his candidate in the White House. Formerly a campaign lawyer for Florida Governor Charlie Crist and a key member of the legal teams of Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (both of whom faced high-profile electoral controversies), he is now counsel to the Republican Governors Association. In 2008, he served as national counsel to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and has remained with Romney this time around.

Founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)

Paul Krugman has called the CBPP “the single best source for serious budget analysis.” That’s a testament to Bob Greenstein’s leadership of the nonpartisan policy think tank, and it explains why he is the go-to sound-bite source for major media outlets on budget and tax questions. Greenstein’s impact on public policy goes back decades. As administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service during the Carter administration, he helped craft the 1977 Food Stamp Act. In the ’90s, he served on President Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. Most recently, he directed federal budget policy during the Obama transition process. Greenstein’s reputation—and the stature of the center he created in 1981—makes CBPP an arbiter in liberal policy debates; years of unfailingly rigorous, data-driven policy analysis mean that its approval or disapproval carries substantial weight. With the major controversies of the moment revolving around dollars and cents, the impact of CBPP has never seemed greater.

Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit

The D.C. Circuit is considered the second-most important court in the country. It adjudicates many of the appeals of cases involving federal agencies, as well as much of the nations’s terrorism litigation. When the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Labor Relations Board issues new rules, for example, the D.C. Circuit is often where the rules’ fates are decided. In many cases, the relatively even-handed and ideologically unpredictable Thomas Griffith, a 2005 Bush appointee, can be seen as the swing seat on the Circuit. Griffith served as the chief legal counsel for the U.S. Senate from 1995-1999 and for Brigham Young University from 2000-2005. On the D.C. Circuit, he joined one 2007 decision to overturn D.C.’s ban on firearms but also another that upheld the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law’s “millionaire amendment,” which made it easier for political candidates running against self-financed opponents to raise money. That decision has since been overturned by a conservative Supreme Court majority.

Journalist for The New York Times

Mark Leibovich came to The New York Times from The Washington Post in 2006 and kicked off his career at the Times Magazine a year later. For the past few years, he’s been the Gray Lady’s point person for political profiles, developing a singular, acerbic, and cutting style. An April 2008 feature about Chris Matthews gently ribbed the talk-show host for repeating his favorite phrases, but it also probed more substantive foibles-especially his nagging inferiority complex in comparison with Tim Russert. Leibovich’s January 2010 piece on the self-assured Florida Congressman Marco Rubio was an early examination of the current GOP Senate darling and presumptive vice-presidential nominee. Brutally incisive, yet not without pathos, Leibovich’s political writing is among the finest and the most feared. If he chooses to write about you, it’s a badge of honor. But, once he’s stripped you down to your essentials, the badge may be all that remains.

Vice President of Global Public Policy at Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg may be the face of Facebook, but Marne Levine is defending the company’s interests in Washington. As Facebook’s vice president of global public policy, it’s her job to convince lawmakers—in Washington and overseas—that regulating Facebook is a bad idea. When the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus aired concerns over the sharing of users’ personal information, Levine responded with an illustrated letter demonstrating the controls the company has put into place. She’s also busy assembling the company’s policy teams in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. A Larry Summers protégé who first met him while working in President Clinton’s Treasury Department, Levine served as Summers’s chief of staff in both the Harvard president’s office and the NEC. When Facebook snatched her from the NEC, it was regarded as a sign of the company’s increased interest in public policy. Facebook spent just $350,000 on lobbying in 2010 (a paltry sum in comparison with Google’s $5.16 million), but the company’s D.C. operation is ramping up and just moved into an 8,500-square-foot office.

White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations

Referring to Obama, Counselor to the President Pete Rouse once said, “When he thinks his life is out of control, or there’s too much going on, he calls Alyssa.” Alyssa Mastromonaco became part of the Obama universe in 2005, shortly after he became a senator. But it was during the presidential campaign that she became indispensable. As director of scheduling and advance, she had a hand in the campaign’s most sensitive decisions—and, as always, Obama’s confidence. The New York Times identified her as one of “the most influential people inside the campaign whose names were not on television or in the newspapers, but whose role could well have been vital to the outcome of the race.” A case in point: According to the Times, she played a “lead role” in the secret selection process of Joe Biden as Obama’s running mate. After the campaign was over, she assumed expanded duties at the White House. And, in 2011, she became deputy chief of staff for operations. National Journal has reported that her portfolio includes “liaisons with all the systems and people who get Obama where he needs to go.”

Acting Director of the Congressional Research Service (CRS)

The CRS, which Mary Mazanec has run since April, essentially serves as Congress’s personal think tank. Perhaps the least well-known of the three government institutions designed to deliver information to Congress—in addition to CRS, there’s the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office—CRS plays an essential, and mystery-shrouded, role, shuttling confidential memos and reports from its offices in the Library of Congress to the desks of legislators. This past February, a coalition of 38 government-transparency watchdog groups lobbied for more openness from CRS, and public interest websites have sprung up to disseminate CRS reports. But there’s little likelihood that this congressional agency and its 675 employees will change their well-established practices anytime soon.

Democratic Super Pac Founder

In the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United, it was widely believed that Republican candidates would reap the rewards more than Democrats. Indeed, Karl Rove’s Citizens-enabled Super Pac, American Crossroads, raised as much as the four next wealthiest Super Pacs combined during the 2010 election cycle. But that dynamic could shift with Susan McCue at the helm of a new Democratic Super Pac, Majority Pac, and on the board of American Bridge 21st Century, another Democratic Super Pac. McCue was Harry Reid’s chief of staff starting in 1998, and, in 2005, was instrumental in mounting a public offensive against President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security. After Reid became Senate majority leader in 2006, McCue left to become president and CEO of Bono’s antipoverty NGO, ONE, where she oversaw its $30 million media campaign to make global poverty an issue in the 2008 presidential race. She returned to Reid’s orbit as an adviser in 2008, shepherding him to victory against Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle two years later. After an election season in which Dems cried foul about Citizens United and Rove’s fund-raising juggernaut, McCue represents their best hope for responding in 2012.

Assistant Treasury Secretary for Financial Markets

Mary Miller, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for financial markets, came to Washington from her perch as a top executive at T. Rowe Price Group, where she worked for 26 years. Before that, she was a research associate for the Washington-based Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. In her current role, Miller oversees daily multimillion-dollar auctions of Treasury securities—essentially allowing the government to finance everything it does, from Social Security to highway reconstruction. With government borrowing reaching dizzying heights in recent years, her job has only taken on more salience. Miller’s role has also forced her to summon tactical and political skills. This summer, she spoke out against efforts to roll back major portions of the Dodd-Frank law and urged Congress to end the farcical stand-off over the debt limit. Miller was recently nominated by Obama for a promotion—to become under secretary of the treasury for domestic finance. In this role, she would manage the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the government group created by Dodd-Frank to prevent future financial crises.

White House Director of Legislative Affairs

When President Obama headed to a Capitol Hill burger joint on August 3 to celebrate the debt-ceiling deal, he took just a handful of his staffers. Rob Nabors was one of them. Along with Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Jack Lew, Nabors had played a crucial role in brokering the deal and, in the spring, averting a government shutdown. As the White House director of legislative affairs (in other words, the president’s chief lobbyist), Nabors is responsible for shepherding the White House agenda through Congress. Nabors is no stranger to the Hill: He worked on the House appropriations committee from 2001 to 2008, as staff director starting in 2004. Before taking on his current role in the Obama administration, he was Peter Orszag’s deputy in the OMB (where he helped steer the Recovery Act through Congress) and a senior adviser to Rahm Emanuel.

President and CEO of the Financial Services Forum

As president and CEO of the Financial Services Forum, a trade group comprising the CEOs of 20 top financial institutions, Nichols is Wall Street’s lobbyist. The organization, which was created in 2000, pulled significant weight during the financial-reform fight of 2010: Nichols helped broker private meetings between CEOs and key Obama administration officials, including David Axelrod and Larry Summers. Since Dodd-Frank’s passage, he has sought to slow down implementation of the law and has taken his case to the press. In addition, this summer, Nichols met with Timothy Geithner to discuss concerns over the debt-ceiling crisis, a topic that actually generated some common ground between Treasury and Wall Street. Nichols is a Treasury veteran himself: He was the department’s assistant secretary for public affairs under George W. Bush.

Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications

Ben Rhodes is the voice—and a lot of the brains—of President Obama’s foreign policy. The thirtysomething Obama loyalist sits on the National Security Council, where he doubles as speechwriter and policy adviser, and is responsible for molding the message behind the administration’s actions in Libya, Afghanistan, and the rest of the world. Rhodes took an unusual path to this position. After finishing his MFA in 2002 at New York University, he turned down a job at a literary agency to move to D.C. as an assistant to former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton; one of his tasks was to draft the Iraq Study Group Report. (His novel, The Oasis of Love, involving a Houston mega-church and a failed romance, has been tabled for the time being.) In the past few years, Rhodes has written most of Obama’s key foreign policy speeches, including his Cairo address and Nobel acceptance speech. But his role raises the question: What is a speechwriter doing making global strategy, and a communications specialist crafting policy?

Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC)

The OLC has had a bad rap in Washington since the Bush years, when staffers like John Yoo wrote infamous legal briefs sanctioning water-boarding and other torture methods. Before Virginia Seitz’s confirmation, the OLC had not had a Senate-confirmed head for seven years. Seitz, however, sailed through the Senate confirmation process with a unanimous voice vote, after numerous letters of support from conservatives, and seems poised to bring the office beyond the national security troubles of the last decade. As head of the OLC, she is responsible for giving legal advice to the president and agencies across the executive branch; the office has most recently been in the news for issuing a classified memo sanctioning the Anwar Al Awlaki assassination. Seitz is also known within legal circles for the amicus brief she authored for retired military officers supporting affirmative action programs; the brief was cited by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her landmark 2003 decision upholding affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s law school.

Official White House Photographer

Pete Souza can easily be seen as something of a p.r. man for Obama; however, he’s no partisan acolyte, having previously served as official White House photographer for President Ronald Reagan. Souza is responsible for the numerous photos that regularly flow from the White House, which means his images play a key role in shaping the public’s perception of the president at any given moment: When Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals, for instance, Souza was inside the Situation Room, framing Obama and his national security advisers huddled over the table. Souza has known Obama since 2005, when he documented his first year as a senator for the Chicago Tribune.

Associate Head of School for Admissions and Financial Aid at Sidwell Friends

While competition for spots at D.C.’s selective private schools may not have reached Manhattan-like proportions, admissions is still something of a contact sport for the offspring of high-pressure Beltway parents, particularly at Sidwell Friends School, which boasts an applicant acceptance rate not much higher than that of most Ivy League colleges. In fact, Joshua Wolman got his training at one of those esteemed institutions-Columbia, where he worked in the undergraduate admissions office. Of course, the selectivity of Wolman’s current employer has gone up since the Obama girls enrolled.