In a town where everyone wants to be heard, a big part of Mattie Duppler’s job is to listen.
Duppler, who made a name for herself as the director of budget and regulatory policy for Americans for Tax Reform, is the new coalitions director for the House Republican Conference. With some of the hurdles of the lame-duck session behind her and other obstacles ahead, the 27-year-old spoke with CQ Roll Call recently.
She said she's still working on a succinct way to sum up her job description — a challenge compounded by the fact that Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington gave her a “blank slate” mandate.
“’Do what you want with it,’” Duppler said she was told. “That’s the thing that was appealing to me. It wasn’t the Hill envisioning what they need; it was a member of Congress recognizing there was a vacuum, and soliciting from some outside person what they think the best practices are moving forward.”
A former GOP staffer on Capitol Hill familiar with coalitions work in Congress said Duppler wasn’t alone in struggling to come up with a one-sentence mission-statement: “It was, and is, pretty nebulous,” the ex-staffer conceded.
Put simply, the job of the coalitions director is to work with outside lobby, influence and advocacy groups to minimize conflict around certain legislative and policy priorities. Many congressional offices have them, from the committee level to leadership.
Being the coalitions director for the House Republican Conference means being “a mile wide and an inch deep” on all of the relevant policy issues of the moment, a one-time Republican leadership aide said.
“Conference shapes the message for the whole conference,” he continued, “so having someone in that office to interact both downtown and with conservative groups is important from a message standpoint, because sometimes that message gets lost.”
Duppler’s longtime boss, ATR President Grover Norquist, compared coalitions building to conducting an orchestra.
“Having been at ATR for four or five years, Mattie has sat through hundreds of meetings where somebody talked about taxes, somebody talked about guns, somebody talks about Uber, and if you understand why they’re all connected, you can sort of play the movement as an orchestra. You can conduct the orchestra,” Norquist said. “Everybody plays their own instrument, but you understand why they’re all there, maybe even better than they do. They understand why they’re playing their instrument, but they don’t know why these other guys are here.”
In a separate interview, Duppler talked about being a coalitions director in nearly identical terms.
“It’s a little difficult when you’re in a coalition … and you all care about different items,” Duppler said, “but at the end of the day, your mission is to make [government] smaller, and you can all agree on that one singular issue.”
When Duppler was on the other side of the equation, “we didn’t necessarily have to agree to still understand that we were on the same side of things. And I think that if you don’t come from having that relationship beforehand, it’s very hard to have a conversation where one or the other party thinks they’re already at odds.”
Duppler said her status as outsider-turned-insider will make her most effective. Some of the other congressional coalitions directors rose up through members’ offices or came to Capitol Hill from government affairs groups or lobby shops; Duppler earned her stripes in the advocacy circuit, fighting against competing interests to gain an audience with powerful lawmakers and score a seat at a crowded table.
She is no stranger to how quickly conflict can escalate, how rapidly discontent can boil over and wreak havoc on the legislative process. It’s not always possible to bring that rage down to a simmer (see: Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth in 2013, egging on conservatives to defund Obamacare or shut down the government). But Duppler has an idea of what it takes to ease tensions and anticipate uproar.
“I want to communicate to outside groups what our prerogatives are, but also to go to groups and say, ‘OK, what are your issues with that?’” Duppler explained. “Being able to really solicit their input before we run into a problem, which has been a shortcoming, I think, with a lot of interaction in the past.
“There just isn’t enough prior conversation until you hear about it when people are mad,” she continued. “The story writes itself when people are mad, but the work that goes into that is really the important part.”
In mapping out her vision for the job, she was careful not to criticize the work of predecessors: “It’s not that people haven’t been reaching out. It’s just … knowing what questions to ask.”
Duppler attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a notoriously liberal institution where, in her words, “I cut my teeth in politics disagreeing with people.”
She graduated in 2008 and came to ATR in 2009 as an intern, where she quickly climbed the ranks. In five years, her name and face became recognizable across multiple platforms — in columns she wrote for Red Alert Politics and Town Hall and on TV news segments with the likes of Neil Cavuto and Chris Hayes.
She was both a policy wonk for and a public face of ATR. She worked her way up within the organization and became the first woman there to earn a director title. (She was also executive director of the Cost of Government Center, a project housed within ATR.)
Over the summer, McMorris Rodgers’ staff started soliciting names to replace Nick Muzin, who had left the coalitions director position to work for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Duppler’s name was floated as a possible contender; her then-boss, Norquist, actually found out about it first.
“I knew she was open to working on the Hill, and that was fine,” Norquist told CQ Roll Call. “Mattie had worked with us for five years and everyone was expecting that at some point she would leave. So I was delighted when the congresswoman from Washington — I ran into her at an airport — said, ‘We’d really like to hire her.' I said, ‘That’s exactly the right job for her.’”
On McMorris Rodgers’ staff, Duppler isn’t responsible for promoting policy positions and she isn’t authorized to speak on the record. She says she’s happy to offer lawmakers her opinion and perspective, but understands they might not always heed to her advice or pursue the path she would have chosen.
Getting her way, Duppler insisted, “is the last thing on the list of things that I care about."
"I am someone who has issues that I care very strongly about and I have issues that I continue to care about," she said, "but I know at the end of the day that if I’m someone who has to be agreed with 100 percent of the time on 100 percent of the issues, I am going to be a very unhappy person in Washington and in life.”
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