The XX Factor

Q & A with Nancy Jacobson

I first met Nancy Jacobson when she was fundraising for Al Gore’s 1988 Presidential campaign. She’s still at it. At the moment she is raising money for Sen. Evan Bayh’s 2010 re-election. Well known in D.C., she and her husband, Mark Penn are both big names in the Democratic Party. Nancy has been a fundraiser for both Bill and Hillary Clinton and served as finance chair for the Democratic National Committee. The other day I asked her about her own life in politics and why she thinks it’s a good place for women to work. Here’s what she had to say.

You have a busy life as a powerful political fundraiser combined with being a wife and mother. What’s your schedule like? Do you have to travel? If so, tell us a little about that aspect.

Nancy Jacobson: I have my own consulting business with several clients and two women who work for me.

Since having my daughter seven years ago I eliminated all travel except to New York. I am a firm believer that you can’t have it all but rather must select a series of different priorities at different times of your life. For me to travel while having a husband who spends two-thirds of his time on the road would be impossible. Someone must be home to tuck our daughter in at night. This is my preference and there is no other place I would like to be.

Having never stopped working since I graduated college, I have built up the ability to have this freedom. My colleague does the travel with the senator we currently represent so all works out fine.

Exercise is a non-negotiable [as is] being home for dinner and bedtime. In addition I was the room parent this past year and will co-chair the school auction this coming year. I believe it is vital to support the school community so making time for this is important.

My day starts at 5:45 a.m. when I exercise. I recently started meeting friends in the neighborhood to walk and run with. It was a twofer as it both allowed me to stay in touch with my good girlfriends and get my exercise too! I am always on the look out for these kinds of opportunities.

Many nights I meet for “kid dinners” also a time to spend time with mom friends and be with my daughter since my husband may be traveling or getting home too late for a family dinner.

I also made sure my office is close to my house. Living in Georgetown, I found an office I can walk to which makes life easier.

Have you actively promoted women candidates? If so, what do you feel women bring to the political process?

Jacobson: I was the finance director of the Democratic Party in 1993 right after Bill Clinton became president. It was then that I created and organized the Women’s Leadership Forum of the Democratic National Committee. This represented the first time that the party actively recruited and organized women to raise money. We soon learned that women, like men, could be a formidable source for political dollars. The group thrived and lifetime friendships were born. In 2008, after Sen. Evan Bayh decided to forgo a presidential bid, I moved to Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a senior advisor tasked with recruiting new donors. I quickly realized that although there was strong political outreach, nothing was being done to systematically bring in women to raise funds. I proposed we create and build The Women’s Summit. Within 3 months we recruited over 1400 women nationwide to come to Washington for a $2300 per person “summit” to support Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign. It was probably one of the best events of her campaign. The women wanted to connect with one another and share in this historic candidacy. It truly was empowering for so many of them and has undoubtedly led to a now-lifetime involvement in politics. Both these experiences made me realize the power of women in politics and the desire of all of them to connect with one another. Through this process I am certain future leaders were created all around us.

Would you recommend women get involved in politics? If so, why?

Jacobson: There are not enough women in politics. This is so unfortunate. Women have qualities that could be so helpful to the political process. They are naturally good at working through issues, listening and being empathetic. Was it not coincidental that two of the three Republican senators that helped pass president Obama’s stimulus package were women? An organization I have become involved in of late is the White House Project, led by Marie Wilson. This bipartisan group offers women regardless of party a chance to acquire the tools to become leaders in politics, business and the community. Women need to be encouraged and trained to move to the next level and take on positions of leadership. Women need to help women to believe what’s possible and give each other the support to reach their goals.

How would you suggest a woman start to get involved?

Jacobson: For someone thinking about getting more involved in politics I suggest starting to volunteer in your local congressperson’s office. Helping on fundraising is always a sure way in. All candidates need money and there never seems to be enough of it. Showing reliability and determination can go a far way in getting the attention of the decision makers. I often say politics is like Hollywood – everyone is waiting for their break and the chance to be discovered. It’s best in politics if you have a patron that you assist and in return helps to promote you. Finding people that you can mutually invest in is key. Having many young women that have worked in my office over the years I am very aware how beneficial that can be.

We are living at a time of immense change and dislocation. The government has become ever more active in all our lives. To be involved in politics at this moment can be very meaningful. The stakes are so high and the prospect for change is immense. Take the plunge!

Would you ever run for office yourself? If not, why not?

Jacobson: I have never ever been interested in running for office myself. I have always preferred to be the “producer” or “agent” for the people I have worked for. I am a creator and builder and love the process of setting goals and achieving them. There is so much more freedom in not being the candidate. I admire the people who are willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to do that work.

Photograph of Nancy Jacobson courtesy of the author.