Lawmakers rarely shine a positive spotlight on lobbyists, much less publicly toast them and rave about their style on Capitol Hill.

But they did just that on Tuesday night for consumer advocate Joan Claybrook, who retired earlier this year as the head of the watchdog group Public Citizen. The organization held a dinner event in honor of her 27-year leadership.

Claybrook has become known as one of Washington’s most relentless consumer-interest lobbyists. Her work has influenced rules on auto safety standards, congressional ethics, campaign finance and more.

Among the lawmakers who praised Claybrook’s efforts were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Actor and longtime environmentalist advocate Robert Redford also spoke highly of her.

McCain told guests he wants to see Claybrook continue her advocacy. "I think she can be a consumer advocate in this administration, and I guarantee she would have been in mine," last year’s Republican presidential nominee said to audience laughter.

McCain formed an unlikely partnership with the liberal consumer advocate when they worked together on campaign finance reform. "If it had not been for Joan Claybrook, we would have never passed that legislation," McCain said at the event, held at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum.

Redford honored Claybrook as a teacher, mentor and friend. "She taught me the ropes of how to lobby and how to develop patience, which is not my virtue," he said.

Public Citizen’s founder, Ralph Nader, was also there. He said there are a few issues, such as solar energy, that he wished Claybrook would have focused more on.

But she has "authenticity, honesty, consistency, irrepressibility," Nader said. "That’s what made her last all this time. Otherwise, you get discouraged, you burn out or you sell out."

Markey told guests that he defines himself "as a Joan Claybrook Democrat" because he approves of the ordinary way she views dinner table issues, such as telephone bills and seat belts.

Claybrook earned her share of foes during her leadership. Elliott Hall, Ford’s top lobbyist in Washington from 1987 to 1998, said the auto industry was "absolutely dead set against her" during his tenure.

"We knew what whatever we supported, she would more than likely be on the opposite side," he said during a phone interview.

"She was always on the Hill excoriating" automakers, he said. "So she was not well liked."

At the event, Claybrook told dinner guests that Public Citizen was successful because of its determination.

"One of our operating principles is that we fight back when we’re attacked, and we try to have fun doing it," she said. "If you don’t have some fun, it’s hard. So we’re scrappy, and agile and bold and creative and determined and principled and relentless."

Claybrook has seen both sides of policy making, revolving through government roles and consumer advocacy.

After working at the Social Security Administration, she turned toward Capitol Hill as a congressional fellow. She was lobbied by Nader while helping to draft auto safety bills. She then joined the agency that would later become the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In 1971, Nader created Public Citizen, and a couple years later, Claybrook was the founding director of the organization’s Congress Watch division, a congressional lobbying group.

She didn’t stay out of the government long. She was tapped in 1977 to head NHTSA under President Jimmy Carter. In this position, she oversaw the introduction of the original auto fuel economy standards. Automakers referred to her as the "dragon lady."

She switched back into lobbying when she rejoined Public Citizen as president in 1982.


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