On the Job: Betty Jolly, State Government Relations Director

Posted: January 29, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: February 19, 2010 at 9:52 am

By Robin Herron

Betty Jolly. Photo courtesy of Betty Jolly

Betty Jolly joined Mason in November 2008 as the university’s first director of state government relations. Working with other members of Mason’s Legislative Committee (Larry Czarda, vice president for administration; Tom Hennessey, chief of staff; Lane Kneedler, university government relations counsel; Christine LaPaille, vice president for University Relations; Morrie Scherrens, senior vice president; and Peter Stearns, provost), Jolly shares Mason’s expertise and promotes the university’s position on legislative issues with state legislators.

Jolly has more than 25 years of experience in Virginia: as a lobbyist, political operative and state employee. She was political director for the Mark Warner gubernatorial campaign, served on Warner’s transition team and held several positions during the Warner administration. Before joining Mason, she was policy education director for the Commonwealth’s Department of Health Professions. She also worked for the University of Virginia Health System for more than 10 years.

Jolly has a BA from Tennessee Tech University (which was founded by one of Jolly’s ancestors) and an MBA from James Madison University.

The Gazette caught up with Jolly during a break in action from the 2010 session of the General Assembly, which began on Jan. 13 and winds up March 13.

Why did you decide to come to Mason?

I’ve actually had my eye on Mason for a long time. I thought it was a vibrant model of higher education that I found fascinating. The model is to move strong people into positions and let them make decisions. So it has the potential for entrepreneurship. Also, I liked its demographic “footprint”: It’s in Northern Virginia, has grown really fast and has great leadership.

You joined Mason just over a year ago and attended last year’s General Assembly session. What were your major goals last session, and how successful were you?

My goals were: learn Mason and shape my experiences to Mason’s needs; listen closely to my Legislative Committee and coordinate with the Committee on External Academic Relations; get to know the research arm of the university and the needs of employees; be able to explain every decision made in Richmond with the rationale used; impact directly the outcome of certain high-profile needs; set the stage for Mason to be “a given” at the table in . . . every discussion about Virginia postsecondary education and research; get President [Alan] Merten [to Richmond] as often as possible — he is very popular in Richmond — and faculty members and board members when possible, to put a face on Mason; provide a marketing event for Mason — a day when members are given mugs or material about the university; make the Mason case for resources and our accountability, historically, for those resources: what our record is for student retention, for access, for intellectual firepower, for job growth. [Mason] leadership seemed not displeased [with my efforts]. However, I didn’t get as many faculty or administrators [to Richmond] as I would have liked, due to the pace . . . and a learning curve.

What has changed since then?

I have a year’s worth of Mason-specific experience and maturation in the role, and an understanding of where resources for information, internal to Mason, are. Plus, Tracey Jenkins from the regulatory and government relations division of Wachovia came on board in November 2009 as the executive assistant for the office of Mason’s government relations.

How did you prepare for this year’s session?

The state Capitol building in Richmond.

Contrary to popular perception, the General Assembly meets all year; there’s not a week between the end of one session and the beginning of another that there are not many committee meetings, which continue off session to do business. During session, however, is when all the business at all those meetings comes to its tipping point — and decisions, not discussion, are the order of the day. It can be painful to watch smart people with good ideas who mistake the few weeks the session meets as the time to bring an idea to the arena. Introducing something new during the Assembly is a Hail Mary. You have to be there day in and day out and see patterns building on what’s possible and what’s the likelihood of it fitting into a bigger picture so that a rising tide can lift your boat too when decision time comes. And, for the most part, members don’t relish weighing in on something . . . that they don’t really have knowledge of.

Describe what’s been happening so far and what your day is like.

So far there have been committee assignments; budget overviews and hundreds of amendments filed to the governor’s introduced budget, plus over 2,500 bills filed. Getting all those bills read and organized and triaged as to what concerns Mason is a first order of business, and there’s not much time. . . . It’s entirely possible you need to be at least three places at once, not to mention trying to get to a member’s office to talk privately about Mason’s agenda in particular or the unintended consequences of a bill. Then there’s the meeting with your cohort groups — other higher education liaisons meet weekly to share intelligence and coordinate interests; there’s the monitoring of caucus groups of interest — like the Northern Virginia caucus, whose legislators meet weekly to talk about regional interests. We have a delegation that’s very interested in Mason. And of course, the real game: the floor action in the House and Senate after the bill moves out of committee. In short: you snooze, you lose. So you do your best to be at the best place at the right time, to know the honest players and to be one of them so they want you to succeed, as you do them. Relationships are very, very important, and my number one rule: never give a legislator a surprise. If there will be opposition to what you are asking, tell the member what to expect and so forth. Courtesy still works.

What are Mason’s priorities for this session?

We are looking specifically at research funding opportunities and our inclusion in state research boards. We are looking at ways to grow all assets — in particular, a health and human services building on the Fairfax Campus and a life sciences building on the Prince William Campus. We will be watching a tax on auxiliary enterprises, an increase in pension pay-ins, caps on out-of-state students. There is a real need for more student financial aid; particularly if tuition needs to be raised because of the dire economy. Then there’s language we’ve entered through legislative patrons that gives us authority to work with private partners to leverage opportunities.

What are our biggest challenges, aside from the budget situation?

Making the case why our training of the health workforce is critical to the commonwealth; why our potential to be a research powerhouse for the commonwealth is at a tipping point; studies to persuade for a level playing field in the cost of living and in base budget adequacy. But a big challenge will also be understanding the state’s chief executive vision and get in front of the parade. And finally, there’s the challenge of getting the Mason community on the same page through communication, dialogue and discipline. There is too much competition for resources for anything less than internal teamwork.

What changes do you expect with a new, Republican governor?

It’s not much of a guess what to expect: you just have to look at the new governor’s web page to see visually the streamlining of information from the former governor’s web page. Job creation and economic development incentives were shared as early as this week, and this governor is detail oriented. We, in higher education, will all be studying his speech [he gave] last May at Mason very, very carefully to see what the candidate promised and what Gov. McDonnell will do.

What’s the feeling in Richmond these days?

That’s the most interesting question to me and the one most people ask. There is a half-life of melancholy about lost opportunity and marginalized hopes, and in many, many cases, lives further marginalized — those people who count on a safety net like Medicaid or help for a disabled child. But, there is also the feeling of extrapolating out of this economic downturn the priority of getting a better understanding of systems and systems risk. The idea that we are doing just fine with systems as they are has been badly dented. There’s a sense this year of riding the trend rather than denying it or fighting it. And there’s a sense of the opportunity to get momentum going. The reason it’s important to read the mood is to know how to partner. And one thing is for sure: the middle of a crisis is no time to get tough. So everybody who works in this system professionally knows: ask for something — new planning money, for example — with the caveat of understanding the aggregate picture, and say thanks and thanks again and do not ever indicate that you expect anybody to fall on his or her sword. There’s no panic. One very good reason is the solid financial engineers we have in state government. The money staffs in state government have long tenures and are maybe the best in the country; ditto for the financial staff in higher education institutions in Virginia.

Can Mason faculty and staff members do anything to help further Mason’s legislative agenda?

Absolutely. Keep up with state government activities by visiting the web site. E-mail comments (ejolly2@gmu.edu), talk to the Committee on External Academic Relations to get word to me or call the Richmond office: 804-786-2217. And rub the toe of the statue of George Mason — I understand that’s good luck. I’m taking no chances.

Write to gazette at gazette@gmu.edu