Morgenstern '97 joins the Podesta Group

March 7, 2011Duke Law News

Had he been asked in his early days working on Capitol Hill if he’d ever consider becoming a lobbyist, David Morgenstern says he would have “made a face and said ‘no.’” After working with bright, “straight-shooting” lobbyists, though, he changed his mind.

“I've found that many provided useful and reliable information that aided me in staffing the senators I was working for,” says Morgenstern, the former chief of staff to Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. “I saw how they help individuals and entities exercise their First Amendment right to petition the government for ‘redress of grievances.’”

Morgenstern, 40, left Alexander’s staff on Feb. 18 to join the Podesta Group, one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. At Podesta, where he started March 7, Morgenstern manages legislative strategy and advocacy efforts on a variety of issues, including the budget, education, financial services, energy and transportation.

Morgenstern, who started his 10-year Senate career as legislative correspondent for the late Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., and later worked as counsel to Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., joined a 1992 congressional campaign staff a few days after graduating from Emory University. While his candidate lost, Morgenstern found a calling. Subsequently working for Coverdell’s Senate campaign, Morgenstern was impressed by the candidate’s style. “He wasn’t a flashy figure — he won through hard work and running a focused, issues-based campaign. That was an important lesson for me,” he recalls.

He left Washington in early 1994 to work on another congressional campaign in Georgia before starting law school at Duke. “My Duke Law education has been a big help in the work I’ve done in the Senate — from analyzing the impact of legislation, to considering important legal and constitutional issues pending before the Senate, to reviewing the qualifications of judicial nominees,” he says.

While at Duke, Morgenstern took a memorable seminar on Congress taught by Christopher Schroeder, the Charles S. Murphy Professor of Law and Public Policy Studies, and Senior Lecturing Fellow Ted Kaufman, a longtime chief of staff to Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del. Later, he “enjoyed the fact that my tenure as Sen. Alexander’s chief of staff overlapped with Professor Kaufman’s tenure as a U.S. senator.” Kaufman served as Delaware’s junior senator for almost two years, filling the seat vacated by Vice President Biden.

Though he still had his sights set on Capitol Hill, Morgenstern decided to get some “big law firm” experience following his Duke Law graduation. He practiced litigation at Rudnick & Wolfe (now DLA Piper) in Chicago, for 18 months. “That gave me an important understanding of the legal community and served me well when it came to analyzing tort reform and other relevant legislation being debated on Capitol Hill,” he says.

Morgenstern returned to Washington in the spring of 1999, working first at a small law firm where he focused on franchise litigation and then venturing into the Internet startup arena with VarsityBooks.com. When the technology bubble burst, he was laid-off for the first time in his life. The “silver lining,” he notes, was that he gained experience inside a “more entrepreneurial environment.”

In 2000, Morgenstern did something a career counselor might advise against: “I sent an unsolicited letter to Sen. Chafee’s office, not knowing anyone there, not being from Rhode Island and not even knowing if there was an opening.” A couple of months later, he received a call from the senator’s chief of staff and got hired as a legislative assistant and counsel to the lawmaker who often ended up being the swing vote in an almost evenly-divided Senate.

Alexander appointed Morgenstern as his legislative director in 2005, and chief of staff four years later. “An LD is focused completely on what’s happening on the floor of the Senate. A chief of staff aspires to remove himself from that because he’s operating from a 10,000 foot level most of the time. It was a struggle for the first six months to figure that out,” he says.

Every chief of staff has to deal with personnel, the senator’s schedule and press operations, he adds. “But beyond that, the job is amorphous — every chief of staff ends up serving his boss differently based on his skills and his relationship with the boss. My number one goal was to have office procedures, policies and personnel run smoothly. Anything that was a problem or crisis came to me.”

Morgenstern says working in the Senate was “a great privilege” and he admires Congress’ hard work during difficult times. “Congress is now facing significant challenges, with the growing national debt and annual budget deficits and the need to tackle Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. This requires bipartisanship and tough sacrifices and compromise. People will be disappointed, including the base of both parties. It’s difficult but it is going to have to happen.”

The Podesta Group, well known for its ties to Democratic lawmakers, hired Morgenstern as part of its recent efforts to boost its bipartisan credentials. “David’s expertise is particularly important as the Senate considers game-changing legislation in energy, transportation and education,” CEO Kimberley Fritts said in a statement. “His strong ties to the Republican Party strengthen our commitment to provide the best policy and political expertise from both sides of the aisle.”

For his part, Morgenstern says working in a bipartisan way is business as usual. “I’ve worked for Republican senators, but I have friends from both sides of the aisle, and we’ve seen that it’s tough to get things done in the Senate without these relationships.”

--Debbie Selinsky
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