Public Citizen Names Robert Weissman President

By Joe Newman

As Robert Weissman tells it, his baby son Isaac’s first attempts to crawl were a study in tenacity.

The youngest of two Weissman boys, Isaac made up his mind that it was time to strike out on his own, if only across the living room floor.

He pushed and strained until he was red in the face.

He pushed so hard that he rolled himself over.

It seems stubborn determination is a trait that runs in the family. Certainly, it’s a quality that the 43-year-old Weissman, the son of a local union president and workers’ compensation lawyer, will put to good use in his new job as president of Public Citizen.

Weissman, who started full-time at Public Citizen on Sept. 8, follows in the footsteps of two towering figures — Joan Claybrook, who stepped down as president after 27 years in January, and Ralph Nader, who founded the watchdog group in 1971.

The magnitude of the job and the accomplishments of his predecessors are not lost on Weissman.

“This organization, with its rich history of holding power accountable, is really something of a public trust,” Weissman said. “We work on behalf of all Americans, and it’s a huge responsibility.”

Another thing not lost on Weissman is the symmetry of a 40-something Harvard lawyer grabbing the reins of one of Washington’s leading progressive organizations at the same time another 40-something Harvard lawyer is settling in to his new job across town in the White House.

The change that swept across the country last year reshaped the power dynamic in the nation’s capital. After eight years of being ignored by the Bush administration, suddenly progressives are getting their phone calls returned. Members of Congress who always had been supportive of Public Citizen’s issues now find themselves chairing important committees and subcommittees.

One might think that the shifting political winds would make the task at hand for Weissman and Public Citizen easier. That’s hardly the case, Weissman said.

Already, in several instances, the new administration and congressional leadership have compromised the public interest.

The climate legislation passed by the House of Representatives in July was stripped of important consumer protections and loaded with financial breaks for energy companies.

Likewise, the health care reform proposed by the Obama administration earlier this year fell short of the government-financed single-payer health plan that Public Citizen has long maintained is the only way to provide coverage for all Americans.

In both areas, Public Citizen has refused to back down from its principles, even if the politically expedient course would be to back flawed legislation — a “glass is half-full” approach that might make friends on Capitol Hill but isn’t in the public’s best interest.

“We’re not so enchanted by power that we are willing to compromise with it,” Weissman said. “We’re realistic and practical, but we’re also hard-headed idealists.”

A Cleveland native, Weissman is no stranger to the ways of D.C. politics. For the past 20 years, he has fought to hold corporations and the governments that enable them accountable as editor of Multinational Monitor, a Washington, D.C.-based journal that Nader created to track the activities of multinational corporations, particularly in the developing world.

Weissman first caught Nader’s eye as a student activist at Harvard. In 1986, Nader asked Weissman, then finishing his sophomore year, to lead a new project dubbed Harvard Watch, which would monitor and expose corporate influence over research done by university employees and financed by grants or gifts from donors, foundations and corporations.

John Richard, president of Essential Information, which publishes Multinational Monitor, and a member of Public Citizen Inc.’s board of directors, said Weissman’s work on Harvard Watch showed early on that he was special. Since 1995, Weissman served as director of Essential Action, a project of Essential Information formed to help carry out some of the change advocated in the magazine.

Of all the presidential candidates Public Citizen’s boards of directors considered, Weissman emerged as the clear choice, said Robert Fellmeth, chairman of the Public Citizen Foundation.

“He is capable of mastering the most complex public issues. At the same time, he is plugged into the real world, as demonstrated by his crucial and inspiring work to lower pharmacy prices for AIDS victims and others in the developing world,” Fellmeth said. “Rob can master patent law and economic theory and apply that knowledge politically for real-world outcomes.”

In 1989, after graduating from Harvard with a bachelor of arts in social studies, Weissman took an associate editor position with the Multinational Monitor, rising to become the magazine’s editor by the following year. (He ran the magazine while earning his law degree from Harvard Law School, from which he graduated magna cum laude in 1995.)

However, he has blazed a path that goes far beyond the papers and articles he has written and edited.

Perhaps his most significant achievement was helping to lead a successful campaign to lower the price of HIV/AIDS medication in developing countries. Because of his and others’ lobbying and organizing, the annual cost of treatment for HIV/AIDS in developing countries fell from $10,000 per person to less than $100. Through that effort, some 4 million people are receiving essential medicines they otherwise couldn’t afford. Weissman served as a consultant to the World Health Organization on access to medicine issues.

He also was one of the principal organizers of an April 2000 grassroots protest in Washington, D.C., that brought out 20,000 people to demonstrate against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Claybrook, who continues to sit on Public Citizen’s boards of directors, said the organization is in very capable hands.

“Robert Weissman is an extraordinarily talented person who is steeped in the policy issues we pursue,” Claybrook said. “He cares deeply about this organization and its public advocacy achievements.”

Though Weissman says there won’t be any change in Public Citizen’s core mission, there will be some subtle shifts, including a fresh way of looking at things the organization has always done.

Primarily, he sees Public Citizen intensifying the amount of work it does on climate change, which he says will be the single most dominant issue over the next decade. There is also a great need to focus on the nation’s financial crisis, he said.

And, of course, he brings the perspective of someone who, along with his wife Stephanie Donne, is raising two young boys — Isaac and 4-year-old Elijah.

Family is a priority for him, and it’s a motivation to continue to make some of Public Citizen’s work directly relevant to young parents, such as focusing on prescription drug safety for children and safer imported children’s products.

While he says it will be impossible to fill Claybrook’s shoes, he’s looking forward to the challenge.

“Public Citizen has always been and will always be a beacon for progressive thought and action,” Weissman said. “We’ll continue to be involved in the front-line issues of the day, but we’ll also be exploring new ways of organizing around our causes and reaching out to people who may not be familiar with our work.

“The work we do here may well be unparalleled in the public interest world.”

Joe Newman is Public Citizen’s deputy communications director.