WASHINGTON–In her job as Sen.-elect Richard Blumenthal’s chief of staff, Laurie Rubiner says her first challenge right out of the box will be this: helping her new boss move from a world of lawsuits and subpoenas to one of filibusters and gridlock.
Blumenthal, a Democrat elected to succeed retiring Sen. Chris Dodd, has been a “take-charge, take-action” kind of politician who, in his two decades as Connecticut’s attorney general, is used to getting “quick results,” she noted.
“It’s harder to do that in the Senate,” Rubiner said. “It’s a lot of obstructionism… and it can be frustrating.”
That may be especially true in the Senate Blumenthal will join come January, which will have 47 Republicans, 51 Democrats, and two independents, including Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
“It’s going to be very polarized,” Rubiner predicted. “And it’s a big transition going from being an attorney general and somebody who is an executive to being one of 100.”
So the 48-year-old Rubiner, a battle-tested Washington veteran, has spent the last couple of weeks trying to help Blumenthal put together a Senate team tailored to ensuring that political adjustment is a smooth and successful one.
She’s also ramping down at her current job as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood, where she’s spent the last two years working to make the group’s voice heard in the debate over health care reform.
Health care, as it relates to women and the poor in particular, is her passion. She’s been working on poverty and health issues for more than two decades, much of that time in the Senate.
Rubiner got her start in politics by “happenstance,” she says, soon after she graduated from college. A family friend offered her an internship with then-Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican from Kansas who eventually went on to become the Senate Majority Leader and run for president, unsuccessfully, against Bill Clinton.
She loved the work, if not Dole’s politics. “When I came of age politically… I figured out he wasn’t really consistent with my views,” she said. “But he was a wonderful man, very funny, and very good to me… It was a great introduction to politics.”
She was much more in tune with her next boss, the late Sen. John Chafee, a moderate Republican from Rhode Island. She spent nine years as his legislative assistant, focusing on health care and women’s issues, among other things.
After a brief respite from Capitol Hill, she returned in 2005 to work as then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s top legislative and policy aide. In that role, Rubiner helped craft the health care reform proposal that Clinton made a centerpiece of her 2008 presidential bid.
In 2008, Rubiner, who is married to a high-tech entrepreneur and has an 18-year-old daughter, decided she was done with the political “slog” of the Senate. But she wanted to keep working on health reform, and decided the best place to do that was Planned Parenthood.
“Planned Parenthood is really the coming together of the things I care most about,” she said, because the organization is dedicated to women’s reproductive rights and expanding access to health care, for the poor in particular.
“We have 850 health care centers throughout the country, and for most low-income women, those centers are sometimes the first and only place they get their health care,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that, with health care reform coming, Planned Parenthood was a place that women could continue to get their health care–their family planning, their pap smears.”
She never thought she would return to the long hours and difficult work of a congressional staffer.
“Every time I leave, I say I’m not going back, but when [Blumenthal] was elected, I was really thrilled,” she said.
Before her job interview, Rubiner knew Blumenthal only “by reputation.” But she saw him as a politician who was in the business for the right reasons.
“The Senate has gotten more and more polarized, with fewer and fewer people who really are committed to public service,” she said.
She thinks Blumenthal will have the same “thoughtful, pragmatic” streak as Clinton and Chafee. Rubiner said she didn’t see very much daylight between those two lawmakers, despite their different party affiliations. And as for her own politics, she eschews precise definitions.
“I’m just a pretty pragmatic, moderate person,” she said. “I don’t really adhere to any label or party.”
Despite her extensive background in abortion-rights and health care, she said she doesn’t expect those two issues to be a major focus in her new gig with Blumenthal.
“I think he hired me more for my background as somebody who understands the Senate,” she said, adding that Blumenthal has been an abortion-rights champion much longer than she has.
“His focus is really going to be on Connecticut voters, jobs, and the economy,” she said. And so, she added, will hers.