Paddi LeShane did not follow the tried-and-true path to becoming a lobbyist by working for political candidates, but that didn't stop her from becoming a top female lobbyist in Connecticut.
LeShane was working in the late 1970s for Easter Seals, which was about to lose $15 million in job training funding because the federal government had reorganized and was sending money to states in the form of competitive block grants.
"I went into it not really knowing what a lobbyist was," LeShane recalled. "My boss looked at me and a coworker and said, 'OK, go get funding.' I had to figure out who to talk to and how the legislative process worked."
Easter Seals recovered much, though not all, of its funding then, LeShane said, but she "learned a lot — because I didn't know anything at the time."
Today, LeShane is an equal partner with Patrick Sullivan running Connecticut's third largest lobbying firm — Sullivan & LeShane Inc. — with 47 registered clients. But she's not the only high-profile woman lobbyist running her own shop.
In a profession long-dominated by men, women operate three of the five largest lobbying firms in Connecticut, based on number of registered clients, and their presence in and around the State Capitol is growing.
In fact, women lobbyists are far from an anomaly in the government relations field these days, industry experts say.
"When I first worked at the Capitol, were men dominating positions? Absolutely," said Linda Kowalski, who runs Hartford lobbying firm Kowalski Group LLC, the fifth largest firm in the state, according to the Hartford Business Journal's Book of Lists. "Were there few women lobbyists? Absolutely. I could count them on one hand. But ... thank goodness [women] were not afraid to take up the challenge and become lobbyists and work on par with men."
The third top women-owned firm, Gallo & Robinson LLC, with 45 registered clients, is run by Betty Gallo and Kate Robinson.
It's not exactly clear how many women lobbyists work in Connecticut because the Office of State Ethics (OSE), which regulates the industry, doesn't track that information.
As of Dec. 19, however, there were 117 business lobbying organizations registered with the state for the 2016 calendar year, as compared with 97 in 2005, according to OSE data.
Another 800 individual lobbyists are registered — 591 who are hired by client lobbyists and 219 who work either alone or for a business lobbying organization, said OSE spokesperson Nancy Nicolescu.
Despite women owning some of the larger firms in the state, there is still room for growth. In fact, in HBJ's list of the 25 largest lobbying firms, the vast majority — 17 — are run by men.
That reality simply tends to mirror gender dynamics that permeate the legislative systems nationally and statewide, LeShane, Gallo, Robinson and Kowalski say.
All four women agree that gravitating from being a lobbyist to also running a firm was something they felt compelled to do, but running the larger firms in the state does not necessarily equate to being tops in the industry.
They cited peers — like Peg Morton, vice president of government affairs at Eversource — who don't run their own shops, but are skilled lobbyists at the top of their game.
"Of all the things I do, the running of my business is not my favorite, but I'm the one that makes it work," said LeShane. "I have sensed there are more and more women going into public affairs and government relations and sticking with it rather than going into the corporate side of the business. Like myself, they love the people part of it, the problem solving, and helping interpret government."
Gallo, who in 2017 will be entering her 40th year lobbying in the Connecticut legislature, set up her firm in 1981 after losing a bid for state representative. For her, as a single mother with two children, the business became a means of financial support.
Robinson joined Gallo in 2000, having clerked on a General Assembly planning and development committee and working in both profit and nonprofit environments. She became a partner in 2013.
"The reason I started the firm was to help nonprofits who were disadvantaged because they could pay so little to have advocates lobby for them," Gallo said. "Now, we have a lot of experience, expertise and connections and can afford to do it because we have a number of clients."
The firm takes on a wide variety of clients and issues today, Gallo and Robinson said.
"We only take clients whose issues we believe in and that's another reason people come to us," Gallo said. "They know we care very much about the issues we're handling."
Gallo said social justice permeates every issue the firm handles.
Those range from advocating for the Sandy Hook anti-gun violence bill and domestic violence issues to same-sex marriage, transgender civil rights and medical marijuana.
"We're passionate about social justice because we want to make people's lives different and better in the state," she said. "We say 'no' to clients all the time, either because we have a conflict or because their issues aren't the issues we want to be doing."
The skills that help these women succeed are the same skills effective male lobbyists use, they said — listening, hard work, vigilance, knowing the political and regulatory landscape, willingness to learn, consensus building and being tenacious.
"Not letting up," added Kowalski, who likened it to her hobby as a marathon runner.
"You have to keep proving yourself," said Kowalski, who has run the Philadelphia marathon in under four hours. "I basically will try to leave no stone unturned and follow what I believe is a tough training plan. While I may not have the gift of some phenomenal athletes, I've found if I work hard at that training plan and push my body a little harder, I've been successful in achieving my goals."
When ticking off challenges, Kowalski said she approached working within the "Old Boys" network, though more dominant early in her career, as another opportunity to succeed instead of as a barrier.
Role models ranging from Ella Grasso to these women's mothers have helped as well, LeShane, Gallo, Robinson and Kowalski say.
Another challenge that is also a benefit in running a firm instead of working as a sole practitioner, say Gallo and Robinson, is the crossover of clients and issues ranging from affordable housing to homelessness to mental health issues.
"I can be in different rooms and be able to knit it together so [clients] understand how a round of bond funds is going to affect their issues," said Robinson.
Kowalski recalled her success in lobbying for women's health issues like regular and, recently, digital mammography as perhaps the most rewarding.
"Being a woman has allowed me to identify with [cancer] survivors. My mom is a survivor," she said. And more than that, her mother's example led her to the work she does today.
Beatrice Kowalski served as a state commissioner for Special Revenue and ran former Gov. Lowell P. Weicker's first U.S. Senate campaign.
LeShane pointed to her youth as the greatest obstacle, since as a young lobbyist she did not have a track record.
As for the future of women running lobbying firms, child care emerged as an issue that still poses obstacles for many women, these leaders say.
However, when it comes to working in the business, communicating effectively and doing your homework remain key traits needed to make it, LeShane said.
"You have to know who you are," she said, "and be comfortable in your own skin."
Prominent lobbyist Jay F. Malcynsky, managing partner of New Britain's Gaffney, Bennett and Associates Inc., said he has worked with and against LeShane, Gallo, Robinson and Kowalski on various issues.
"I have to say with regard to all of them, they're always very professional, honest and not self-dealing," he said.
No matter what route these women took to make their mark, however, Malcynsky says excellence, not gender, defines them.
"People recognize talent and character irrespective of whether it's a man or a woman," he said. "People hire people who are good at what they do, period."