A League of Her Own
Mohrman-Gillis helps set media policy for city government
By Bill McConnell -- Broadcasting & Cable, 2/13/2005 7:00:00 PM
The lobbying director for the National League of Cities says she owes her job to trash. Prior to leaving private practice in 1987, Marilyn Mohrman-Gillis was a litigator for Washington law firm Steptoe & Johnson. In her final case, she handled a notorious legal battle over Islip, N.Y.'s attempt to solve a solid-waste–disposal crisis.
Unable to dump locally, Islip tried to barge its trash to three Southern states, as well as to the countries of Cuba and Belize. All refused. Humiliated by nightly mocking news coverage, Islip agreed to take the load back and incinerate it.
Shortly afterward, Gillis dumped her firm for the FCC.
“I joke I ended up going to the FCC because of garbage,” says Mohrman-Gillis, who also decided litigation was too all-consuming. At the time, she was building a family that eventually grew to four children.
“Litigation was wonderful in teaching me to be a lawyer,” she says. “Each case requires you to become an expert in a new field. I loved it, but it wasn't something I could sustain.”
After a two-year stint at the FCC, where she concentrated on broadcast and cable regulations, Mohrman-Gillis began a 13-year tenure as lobbyist for the Association of Public Television Stations.
In 2003, Mohrman-Gillis entered a broader arena when she was tapped by the National League of Cities to be director, policy and federal regulations. The league is the chief advocate for municipal governments in Washington and weighs in on issues critical to urban areas, such as preserving funding for low-income housing programs and deductions for local and state income taxes. “Our issues are so broad, we cover virtually every committee on Capitol Hill,” she says, “except foreign relations.”
Lobbyist and regulator
Today, she is getting the opportunity to put her expertise as a TV lobbyist and regulator to work. “Two of our top five priorities involve media policy,” she notes. Perennial issues for the League: keep city governments' powers to set cable franchise fees and dictate cable operators' obligations to serve low-income neighborhoods. As Congress gears up to rewrite telecommunications laws, new issues, such as regulation of cable telephone and phone companies' Internet TV, will top her agenda.
Another big priority: getting broadcasters to give up their old analog channels quickly, so local emergency departments can use them for communications. To help carry the load, Mohrman-Gillis hired former Media Access Project attorney Cheryl Leanza last year as lead legislative counsel.
Since changing jobs, Mohrman-Gillis' position on broadcasters' switch to DTV has become more nuanced. As a lobbyist for public-TV stations, she argued against a tight deadline that forced broadcasters to go all-digital. But as an advocate for cities, she understands the frustration of local officials who are attempting to coordinate emergency communications among fire, police and ambulance services on crowded radio bands.
Such problems will be relieved, she argues, when officials are permitted to use channels unencumbered by TV stations.
“I still believe we need to have a transition period that's reasonable for stations,” she says, “but wearing my city hat, I would like to see that transition happen as soon as possible.”
On cable issues, she predicts cities and the industry will side together more frequently than in the past. The top priority for both during the new session of Congress will be ensuring that phone companies pay the same fees and have the same obligation to serve low-income communities as cable.
Given her social consciousness, it isn't surprising that Mohrman-Gillis entered law school in the mid 1970s after a stab at social work. Her goal was to become a crusading lawyer and reform the juvenile-justice system—to repair the troubles she had seen as a social worker.
In 1976, she married Jack Gillis, a former Transportation Department analyst who publishes the annual Car Book, a bestselling consumer guide. He is also a contributor to the Today show and appears regularly on 20/20, Nightline and The Oprah Winfrey Show.
After several internships during law school, Mohrman-Gillis gravitated toward corporate law and accepted an associate post with Steptoe & Johnson in 1979. Determined to continue working in social policy in some capacity, she took on a heavy load of pro bono work for activist groups and low-income clients. In one case, she forced D.C. to back off plans to close a health clinic.
After leaving private practice, Mohrman-Gillis worked for either the government or membership groups representing nonprofits. “My career has always contained a major component of pro bono work or nonprofit service.”
Pro bono benefits
In fact, she believes young lawyers should take on pro bono clients in addition to their workloads. She insists there are professional benefits that complement the rewards of helping others.
“Junior associates at big private firms do a lot of non-substantive work. But my pro bono work required me to cross-examine witnesses before many of the partners got the chance.”
When she assesses her career path, Mohrman-Gillis pronounces herself satisfied: “I haven't gotten that far afield from what I set out to do.”
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