Hamilton Herald Masthead Hamilton Herald


Front Page - Friday, August 9, 2019

A lobbyist's work is never done

Attorney Watson always ready for client crisis, hard questions

Government affairs attorney and lobbyist Nicole Watson is taking a moment to laugh about the public’s perception of what she does.

Some people think her days and evenings are filled with dinners, parties and schmoozing as she persuades elected officials to consider the interests of her clients. A bright smile, a warm handshake and a carefully chosen compliment, and her job is done.

But that’s not the case with her work as a member of the Government Affairs team at the Chattanooga office of Waller, Lansden, Dortch & Davis, Watson says.

“It’s a lot of long days, hard work and educating myself,” she explains. “I have to be knowledgeable about every government agency, committee and procedure. And I have to know each of the steps it takes to pass a bill – and it’s nothing like the Schoolhouse Rock song. There’s a lot of minutia.”

Watson, 38, spends each waking moment acutely aware that the next waking moment could bring a question from a client or a query from a lawmaker. So, she actually spends her days and evenings filling her brain – and the thick portfolio she carries everywhere – with information.

“I’m not an in-house government affairs person; I’m a contract lobbyist for a law firm,” she says. “We have 30 to 40 clients, and I have to be up to speed on all their issues. I could be walking down a hallway and someone could ask me something about any of them.”

How does Watson hold on to all those details without collapsing? “Luck and prayer,” she says. “Plus, I’ve trained my brain to compartmentalize and retain information.”

Watson is also a stickler for organization and tries to never be caught without her documents. But since new issues arise on a regular basis, her mind is continually being divided into more and more partitions. Thankfully, she says, she’s part of a great team at Waller.

“There are four of us. We have a lot of meetings. If I don’t know something, someone else does.”

There is one thing everyone on Waller’s government affairs team knows: Watson loves her job. Yes, the work never ends, but even as she stands in the constant downpour, she’s happy because she’s in her element.

“There’s no other job for me,” she adds. “I can’t see myself being a courtroom or corporate attorney.”

Watson’s personality does appear to be a good match for the work of a lobbyist. Behind the bright smile, warm handshake and carefully chosen compliments is someone who endeavors to know all the answers before she enters a room, who strives to be persuasive and a good communicator, and who does her best to be trustworthy.

“The moment an elected official of legislature or member of a cabinet or an agency no longer trusts you, you’re done until that person is out of office,” she acknowledges. “Your reputation is everything.”

Watson says it also helps that she has thick skin and can laugh at herself. “It takes a certain personality to do this job, and I have it.”

There have been occasions when Watson’s tough hide has protected her from the fiery darts of an advocacy group or other opponent to her client’s interests.

“I had a client with a sensitive social issue. They were opposed by a passionate advocacy group,” she recalls. “The group’s members would come to Nashville and swarm the halls of the legislature.”

Watson’s representation of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council early in her career certainly helped to stir a hornet’s nest of opposition. As the council lobbied for preemption to prevent cities from shutting down pet stores, advocacy groups popped up in fierce opposition.

“It grew ugly,” Watson admits. “You know you’ve made it in this field when you have protesters.”

Watson says this can happen when a lobbyist becomes involved with a hot button issue, so she steels herself before wading into choppy waters.

“If you’re lobbying for a company, and an environmental group doesn’t like you, you have to be ready for them to throw mud at you,” she says. “And when they do, you have to shrug it off.”

The existence of balance in Watson’s work helps. For every sensitive issue she heralds, she’s able to count several victories in widely valued matters.

Watson is especially proud of her advocacy for the Tennessee Fire Service Coalition, a group of fire service organizations devoted to promoting improvements in fire protection. This year, Watson was part of a successful push to secure cancer presumption benefits for firefighters in the state.

The passage of the act was the culmination of a ten-year battle. Waller is credited with carrying the ball across the goal line after becoming involved in earnest earlier this year. “We’re really happy to have been a part of making that happen,” Watson continues.

Watson is also part of the team at Waller that’s representing the National Museum of African American Music, which is aiming to launch early next year in downtown Nashville.

“They were looking for extra money from the state to carry them over the line, and we were able to get them a substantial amount in the governor’s budget,” Watson points out. “I was proud of that as well.”

With over a decade of government affairs experience, Watson has become recognized for her legislative and government relations strategies across Tennessee and the Southeast, says Waller partner James Weaver, who leads the firm’s Government Relations practice.

“Nicole has earned a tremendous reputation as an effective legislative strategist,” Weaver says. “Our clients benefit greatly from her experience and insights into working with legislators and policymakers.”

Watson perfected her craft over many years of work in the political realm, beginning with stints as a congressional intern for US Senators George Allen and John Warner while a student at Emory & Henry College in Virginia.

“When I worked for Warner on Capitol Hill, I had a lot of interactions with lobbyists and saw how I could make a career out of what they were doing,” she says. “I went to law school knowing I was going to be a lobbyist.”

In keeping with her aspirations, Watson took a nontraditional approach to internships while studying at the Regent University School of Law in Virginia Beach. Instead of pursuing posts with law firms, she served as a government affairs summer associate, first for a bipartisan firm in Washington, D.C. and then for the National Rifle Association.

Watson remained in D.C. after law school and spent a decade lobbying for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council at the federal, state and local levels.

She then moved to Chattanooga in 2013 to work for Tennessee American Water. After gaining valuable government and regulatory affairs experience with the company, Watson joined Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel, where she led the firm’s government relations, public policy and economic development initiatives.

Waller, which serves the healthcare, financial services, retail and hospitality industries, welcomed Watson to its Chattanooga office last year.

While Watson continues to work with clients and local, state and federal government officials across the Southeast, she appreciates every opportunity to contribute to matters that impact her hometown.

Watson’s current efforts in Chattanooga include working with the city council to bring products by scooter maker Lime to the city and representing Hospice of Chattanooga and Cempa Community Care. While working with Cempa, she was part of a successful attempt to advocate for state legislation that allows nonprofits to operate needle exchange programs.

Despite her heartfelt participation in these ventures, Watson has been called a hired gun – a common indictment of her industry. The thought makes her bristle because she sees lobbyists as expert advocates who value the relationships they develop.

“It’s my job to advocate for the interests of my clients, whether through my relationships, communication skills or many years of experience learning policy and legislative processes,” she notes. “If that makes me a hired gun, so be it; I call it another day at the office.”

If Watson seems to have a lot on her plate, it’s because she does. In fact, she says she could work around the clock and never be done. “I could go home and then send an email or take a call at 9 o’clock at night. This is not a nine-to-five job.”

Even so, Watson is a firm believer in having a life outside work, so she takes advantage of several opportunities to close her portfolio and either refocus her attention on other matters or take a break.

That said, some of Watson’s off-hours activities sound like more work. A devoted community volunteer, she’s a member of the American Heart Association’s executive leadership team for the Chattanooga Heart Ball, the board for the Women’s Fund Voices luncheon, the Pink! Auction committee and the Chattanooga Bar Association’s legislative committee.

Also, Watson recently rolled off the board of the Junior League of Chattanooga after serving four years, including one as president. She’s also volunteered with Girls Inc.

Watson says her community involvement provides her with an outlet that keeps her life balanced. “I’m in Nashville a lot for work, but on nights and weekends, I feel a strong connection to being involved and giving back. It’s not my personality to sit back and do nothing.”

Although motivated by altruism, Watson has been recognized for her contributions to her community. In 2017, Girls Inc. selected her as an UnBought & UnBossed recipient and Women of Distinction of Greater Chattanooga has chosen her as one of its 2019 honorees.

Given the constant barrage of work in a stressful environment and her high level of involvement with nonprofits and civic organizations, it’s no wonder Watson simply wants to be quiet for a few minutes at the end of each work day. “I talk for a living, so once I’m home, I take five minutes and just sit silently.’’

But even as Watson crosses the threshold to her Hixson home, there’s one more lawmaker waiting for her: State Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixon), her husband of one year this Sunday. In a pocket of time that must feel like an oasis, Watson claims a few moments for herself and then she and the senator will typically eat dinner and watch “Jeopardy!” together.

Watson met her future husband during a breakfast meeting her first day at Tennessee American Water. According to their wedding announcement in The New York Times, it was love at first sight.

In their short time as husband and wife, the couple has made a warmly comfortable life together. Despite their hectic schedules, they’re able to see each other more often than outsiders might think, as they travel in the same circles and attend many of the same events.

They also frequently entertain in their home, where guests are treated to Watson’s taste for off-the-wall art. In their living room, for example, moody grayscale portraits of country singers Willie Nelson and George Jones flank their stark white couch, which is decorated with black and white pillows. Centered behind the couch is a hand-molded Day of the Dead skull acquired in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City.

This scene, which includes framed photos of the couple on matching end tables, is as much an expression of Watson’s personality as her bright smile and warm handshake.

“I love weird art. When people come to our home, I want them to ask, ‘What was she thinking?’” Watson says with a laugh. “My biggest fear is to be boring and lose my edge. I want people to say, ‘So, that’s her style. I never would have put those two things together.’”

Watson also enjoys shopping online, hanging out with her Papillon Pomeranian and attending services at First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. She loves skeet shooting as well but is rarely able to indulge due to her schedule.

Having enjoyed a good laugh about the public’s perception of what she does, Watson is reminded of something else she finds humorous: the notion at some companies that they don’t need a lobbyist or government affairs representation.

“The work lobbyists do is an insurance policy for companies and regulated entities. You might not need us today, but if you’re a regulated industry, then you’ll need help at some point. So, make real, viable relationships early, not just during a crisis.”