K. Riva Levinson, a new lobbyist traveling on a rickety Kenya Airways 707 to war-ravaged Mogadishu, was poised to ink a contract with a potential client — “a murderous dictator,” she recalls — named Siad Barre.
The man who sent her: Paul Manafort, her then-boss, who is now Donald Trump campaign’s chairman and chief strategist.
“We all know Barre is a bad guy, Riva. We just have to make sure he’s our bad guy,” she recalls Manafort telling her back in 1989 as she set off for Somalia. The trip, she says during a recent interview in the K Street office of her firm KRL International, was “a total failure.”
Levinson’s new memoir, “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President,” focuses on how the lobbyist finds purpose in her work for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia. If many of her clients were bad guys, Sirleaf is Levinson’s good woman and her hero.
Though she says she did not always see eye to eye with Manafort, Levinson says she’s grateful he gave her a shot. On the verge of giving up on Washington in her 20s, a college grad waiting tables and working at a nonprofit organization, she writes, “Then I got my big break: I landed a job with Paul Manafort.” She promised him: “There’s no place I won’t go!”
She kept that promise, even after Manafort left the firm, now known as Prime Policy Group. As a State Department contractor, representing the Iraqi National Congress in 2003, she convoyed through Iraq, confronting stone-throwers.
Though her far-flung stories are unfamiliar terrain for most on K Street, she gets around on Capitol Hill, too, especially for Sirleaf, who at first was dismayed to meet with congressional aides instead of lawmakers, then realizes their importance.
Levinson writes that when Sirleaf became president of Liberia in 2006 some of the first people she thanked were Hill staffers including Tom Sheehy, a top aide to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce , a California Republican.
Royce and Sens. Chris Coons , a Delaware Democrat, and Jeff Flake , an Arizona Republican, are among those who have praised Levinson’s book in promotional materials. The book, Flake writes, “gives us a peek behind the curtain of how American foreign policy is formulated and practiced.”
For Levinson, the tale is more personal. Sirleaf, Levinson says, “defined a life for me."
“The book is my journey, it’s Africa’s journey, it’s Ellen’s journey.”