Lisa Brown: behind-the-scenes White House power player

By Carol Eisenberg

May 3, 2009 at 8:46am

Her position is obscure, but White House Staff Secretary Lisa Brown is one of the more powerful behind-the-scenes players in the Obama administration.

Brown is in charge of the paper flow in the White House, controlling the communications that get to the president. The job was held by Obama transition team co-chair John Podesta, for instance, before he became President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff.

Beyond her staff secretary role, Brown is one of Washington’s best known liberal lawyers who is also connected through family and school connections to some of the capitol’s oldest social and philanthropic networks.

Before taking a leave of absence to work on the Obama transition team, she was executive director of the American Constitution Society, founded in 2001 as a liberal counterweight to the conservative Federalist Society and as a sort of liberal farm team for the next Democratic White House.

Obama has already selected several top officials from the group’s board, including Attorney General Eric Holder, Domestic Policy Adviser Melody Barnes, Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden and Office of Legal Counsel director-designate Dawn Johnsen.

Brown’s close ties to several of those people, especially Holder, are expected to increase her clout and access.

Moreover, like many in the Obama administration, Brown has close ties to the Clinton administration, having served as counsel to Vice President Al Gore during the team’s second term.

Before that she was a partner at the Washington law firm Shea & Gardner where she did extensive pro bono work related to housing issues and the poor. She wrote briefs related to the treatment of people with disabilities under The Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988, and co-edited a report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless that accused Washington D.C. of poor treatment of the homeless.

Beyond her own political and legal connections, Brown is the scion of an old Washington family, with an insider’s knowledge of how the capitol works. Her grandfather, W. John Kenney, who founded the law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, was an undersecretary of the Navy and the administrator of the Marshall Plan in Europe.

Her father, the late Philip Bransfield Brown, was a partner in Squire, Sanders & Dempsey and the chairman of Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT.

Her mother, Elinor Kenny Farquhar, has served on the boards of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a chairwoman emeritus of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Brown is married to Dr. Kevin Joseph Cullen, a cancer specialist who heads the University of Maryland Greeneberg Cancer Center.

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