It's rare to find someone who is equally passionate about derivatives and modern art in the public policy world. Erica Elliott, formerly communications director for House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and most recently policy adviser at Crowell & Moring's public policy group, is that rare person.
"One of my issues that I’m most passionate about, and this is strange, I’m really passionate about derivatives," Elliott said in a recent interview shortly after taking up shop with Crowell & Moring. She added that when she was thinking about leaving Capitol Hill and what would be the next professional step, she had a simple test. "I thought to myself, you’re at a cocktail party with people, having a perfectly polite conversation, what is it that would rile you up enough to actually turn that polite conversation into a political debate? And for me, it wasn’t Obamacare or politics broadly , but let me tell you, regulation of derivatives, for whatever reason, fires me up." A collective wail went out from the Capitol press corps when the popular Elliott announced in January she would be leaving McCarthy's office. At a time when relations between staffers and the press could be testy, Elliott had a deft touch with the press and was always polite, professional, even fun to work with, all within the boundaries of the Hill's hack-flack world. "My philosophy ... it doesn’t matter if you’re a reporter, if you’re a staffer, if you’re a lobbyist, it doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, you’re trying to pay your rent, you’re trying to pay your mortgage, you’re trying to deal with all of the other personal things that everybody has going on, so in any interaction, just remembering that you’re just doing your job,” was how she explained her ground rules.
Elliott, who was born and raised in Alabama, went to high school in Northern Virginia at Lake Braddock in Burke. After getting a master's degree in political communication from Auburn University, she went to work doing public relations for an ad agency in Atlanta, where she would have the epiphany that compelled her to find work on Capitol Hill.
"Orange juice is never sexy," she said. "And I thought, I’m cold-calling journalists, asking them to write stories about, ‘Do you know what recipes you can use orange juice in?’ That is a terrible phone call to make,” she added.
So in April 2008, she packed her bags and headed north to D.C. "I knew that in order to work up here, in order to find a job up here, you just had to be here ... and I found a member who was willing to take a risk on someone with no Hill experience whatsoever," she said. That member was Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., who hired her just as the financial crisis was entering full burn. (She wasn't completely unfamiliar with the ways of the Capitol, as her father, a former Army helicopter pilot, was the Army's liaison to the Hill, and helped prep the senior officer corps for testimony on the Hill, amid various duties related to working with Congress.)
"It was right after Bear Stearns failed, and I didn’t know anything about financial services. But there, honestly, could have been no better member to work for than Scott Garrett. He is brilliant and we really clicked. He was accessible and had an energy that made it easy to work for him. At this time [former Treasury Secretary Hank] Paulson was on TV ... talking about how the world was going to end, and I could get [Garrett] on TV six times a day during the financial crisis because he was willing to do it.”
That experience working for Garrett, and later the legwork of working with McCarthy first as the GOP was readying to take back the majority, then after the elections until just two months ago, gives Elliott both policy and political chops for her new gig at Crowell & Moring.
"I was excited about the opportunity to help build and grow a strong federal public policy shop. ... It is my hope that my understanding of what makes this Republican Majority and its Members tick will be a useful perspective for the firm and for our clients," she stated in an email shortly after our initial interview.
And what about the art angle? "It is my life’s goal, and this is something I was able to work on when I was on the Hill, it’s my life’s goal to visit every major art collection in the world," she said, using Art News' 2011 ranking list as her guide. She estimates she's about one-third of the way through. And she reveals the sense of humor she's famous for among reporters when giving examples of why she loves art so much.
“One of my favorite things is to just sit and ... watch people standing in front of modern art and their reaction. And most of them just get so angry. Husband turns to his wife and says, ‘My kid could do that,’ and I love the outrage. I love the emotions that it provokes, and that’s why I love modern art, because people get so mad about it. Kazimir Malevich's "Black Quadrilateral" is one of my favorite pieces. It’s a black square on a canvas. But it evokes this emotion from people.”