Special Feature: The Power 100-2019

Chaos is the new normal in political Washington. Or, to put it another way, living in the nation’s capital is like being on a plane flying through permanent turbulence. Without a safety belt. Major decisions are made and unmade, sometimes in a single day. At the White House, the two most important installations are the television screens and a revolving door that spews out fired staff members at an unprecedented rate. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently told an interviewer that he will serve until the president “tweets me out of office.” The statement was a joke: the sentiment behind it was not. President Trump rules by tweet.

This is not to say that the administration is totally without substance, but the style of delivery, the bluster, the fractured syntax, undermine any accomplishments. The first casualty of this disturbing approach to governance is truth. Two opposite narratives keep track of events. The mainstream media, with their increasingly combative reporting, and the administration, which creates an alternative reality often devoid of real facts – while at the same time accusing the media of “fake news.” The second casualty over a long period is democracy. We’ve seen it before” The aggressive bullying the complacent into submission.

In the present situation, compiling Washington Life’s annual list of the powerful and influential in the nation’s capital becomes an important assignment to identify the combatants in an epic battle to defend cherished values at home, and abroad, the norms and institutions of the liberal world order the U.S. had a major role in shaping. In a global economy, interaction with other countries is necessary and ongoing.

The administration has collected a rogues’ gallery of accomplices and elbowed out America’s traditional, and generally more respected allies. To the extent that there is room for non-belligerent participants on the power list, tribute is also paid to the spectacular quality leap in Washington’s art, culture, education, and dining communities. But as the divisions deepen, and the wounds fester, 2020, and what happens then, becomes less important than 2076 and the question whether there will be a tercentenary to celebrate?


Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives 

San Francisco Democrat Pelosi is the first woman to hold the gavel, and one of only a few speakers to have served in the post twice. Her firm stand over the partial Federal shutdown and her success in blocking the president’s State of the Union address announced the start of an era of checks on Trump’s seemingly unfettered power. Her well-honed political instincts paid off in the 2018 elections and since then she has masterfully navigated the diversity in her own caucus, bringing left and right, and some Republicans, together into the mainstream center. Her success or failure in this regard will have a significant impact on the 2020 presidential race.

Male members of Congress take photos of Democratic women representatives, wearing white, before the State of the Union in the House Chamber of the Capitol. (Erin Schaff for The New York Times)

Sisterhood of Congressional Firsts 

“We’re in the building,” Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote on Instagram in January beneath a stylized photo of herself and five colleagues whose elections were historic firsts. Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has 3.2 million Instagram followers, is the youngest woman elected to Congress and has celebrity-like buzz. A surge in gender politics represented by #MeToo and other movements, plus the backlash against men behaving badly on the sexual front resulted in a record number of female lawmakers like Cortez elected to Congress in the 2018 midterms. Congress was color-coded for Trump’s State of the Union address, with female members en bloc wearing white, a color historically linked to the suffragette movement. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) are the first two Muslim American congresswomen. Sharice Davids (D-Kans.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) are the first two Native American women elected to the U.S. Congress. It’s not just women on the “left,” but Democratic centrists like former CIA operative Abigail Spanberger and former Navy pilot Mikie Sherrill, that reflect the rise of powerful women in the House.



Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman

The expression “heads will roll” acquires a grotesque, literal meaning in Saudi Arabia were in April, 37 individuals were beheaded, of which at least 34 were from the desert kingdom’s Shia Muslim minority, according to Human Rights Watch. This brings the total number of executions so far this year to 105, including at least one crucifixion, and fits into Crown Prince Mohammad’s ruthless drive to secure his power within the kingdom. Known as MBS, the prince is regarded as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. His harsh application of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi-based Islamic law, against non-adherents, his merciless bombing of neighboring Yemen – a humanitarian disaster of catastrophic proportions, and his role in the execution of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi have irrevocably undermined his multi-million dollar public relations blitz to present himself as a reformer. The Trump White House, however, continues to support MBS, recently vetoing legislation to halt U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-UAE war in Yemen. As such, Saudi influence with the Trump administration appears immovable, perhaps in part because Saudi political and financial support is pivotal to Kushner’s Israeli-Arab peace plan. Saudi Arabia has the dubious distinction of being the top foreign spender with Washington lobby firms, employing a virtual army of 146 lobbyists to work on its image and advance its agenda. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Saudis lavished more than $19 million on the lobbying sector between January 2017 and October 2018. Of course, this pales in comparison to the $10 billion the Saudis have spent over the past five decades, according to the State Department, to spread a narrow, puritanical, and intolerant version of Islam that has been linked to nearly every terrorist attack in the West. In fact, according to the Global Terrorism Database of King’s College in London, nearly every terrorist attack in the West since September 11, 2001, has had some connection to Saudi Arabia.



Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer, Tommy Vietor and Jon Lovett, Hosts, “Pod Save America”

Favreau, Pfeiffer, Vietor and Lovett are a quartet of former Obama aides. In 2017, they launched the HBO-based podcast which they describe as a “no bullshit conversation about politics” and it has become a go-to source of political commentary for American millennials, with an average audience of 1.5 million per show. Millennials favor getting their news through comedy and following John Stewart’s lead, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver have taken this to another level. Together, with Favreau and company, they’ve helped politically engage millions of young Americans.


Leana Wen, President, The Planned Parenthood Federation of America 

Leana Wen had hardly settled in as the first physician to lead the national organization in nearly 50 years when she was pushing against new cuts in federal family planning funds proposed by the Trump administration. Sweeping new rules will make organizations that provide or refer patients for abortions ineligible to receive funds under the so-called Title X family planning program. The new regulations also divert more funds to faith-based organizations that promote fertility awareness and abstinence as family planning methods. Planned Parenthood provides health services for millions of women through its 600 health centers across the country. Prior to moving to Planned Parenthood in November, Wen was Baltimore’s City Health Commissioner. To combat an opioid crisis, she issued a blanket prescription for the opioid antidote, naloxone, to all 620,000 Baltimore residents, a program that saved thousands of lives.




J. Stephen Jones, President and CEO, Inova Health System

In March 2018, Jones, a urology specialist, succeeded Knox Singleton, who had expanded the Falls Church health system of five hospitals to a still-growing network of healthcare facilities that serves some two million patients annually and has 17,500 employees. By December, Jones, formerly president of the Cleveland Clinic Regional Hospitals, had revised the original expansion plans that included what had earlier been called “a near mini-city” with a mall and residential areas to focus instead on advancing Inova’s existing medical and research plans. The state-of-the-art Inova Schar Cancer Center is expected to open later this year. Then, in 2020, the Global Genomics and Bioinformatics Research Institute housing research collaboration with the University of Virginia, and George Mason University will be fully functioning.




José Andrés, Chef; Founder, World Central Kitchen

When not opening new restaurants (he has seven in Washington) Michelin star chef José Andrés is most likely to be found at the latest natural disaster, setting up relief kitchens to feed its victims through his World Central Kitchen operation. In Puerto Rico, Andrés opened 25 emergency kitchens to serve three million meals after Hurricane Maria. In December, World Central Kitchen launched the #ChefsForFeds project to deal with another kind of disaster – the partial federal government shutdown. #ChefsForFeds served thousands of meals to federal workers in locations in 22 states. Andrés has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.


Kaywin Feldman, Director, National Gallery of Art

Feldman is the first woman to be appointed director of the NGA, the country’s second largest art museum. Until March 2019, she was director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, a distinguished, medium-sized institution, with a current annual average of 700,000 visitors. In 2018, the NGA’s average is over five million. Feldman succeeds Earl (Rusty) Powell, whose parting gift was an exhibition of works by Tintoretto, the first ever in the United States.

Feldman, who took over as director of the National Gallery of Art in March is the first woman to run the NGA, but by no means the only woman at the head of a Washington art museum. With one or two exceptions, museum directorships in the nation’s capital are a female domain – well above the gender division nation-wide, which is 48 percent. Feldman has the added distinction of being the first woman to head one of the four museums in the nation with a budget of over $100 million ($154,114,000 for FY2020). The ultimate glass ceiling is the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York – the NGA is the second largest art institute.


Sarah J. Bloomfield, US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Melissa Chiu, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Susan Fisher Sterling, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Anthea Hartig, Elizabeth Macmillan Director of the National Museum of American History

Kate Markert, Hillwood Museum

Dorothy Kosinski, Phillips Collection

Emily Rales, Glenstone Museum

Kim Sajet, National Portrait Gallery

Ellen Stofan, National Air and Space Museum

Stephanie Stebich, Smithsonian Museum of American Art


This feature appeared in the May 2019 issue of Washington Life magazine. 









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