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
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
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
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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