If you’re a woman, and you’re considering a career in politics in Trenton, you have Patrizia Zita to thank for help clearing the path. When Zita became a lobbyist in the early 1990s, she was one of the very few women in her profession.
“When I worked for the Chemical Industry Council, a trade group that represented chemical, pharmaceutical, and chemical companies, our board of directors was made up of about 30 men,” she says. “I was the only woman at the board meetings for the first few years I worked there. Thank goodness times have changed.”
The times certainly have changed for Zita, whose name is now on the side of the Kaufman Zita Group building, which is a renovated train station on Sullivan Way in West Trenton. Her parents, a cabinetmaker and a seamstress who immigrated to Hamilton from Italy, have reason to be proud of her even if they lack a clear idea of exactly what her job is.
“My parents don’t really understand what I do for a living,” she says. “They say, ‘she does something with government and politics.’ But I think that’s common. Most people don’t understand exactly what a lobbyist is.”
Zita will speak at the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business Conference on Tuesday, March 24, from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Forsgate Country Club. WPST radio host Chris Rollins will give the keynote address. Zita is on a panel of professional women that includes Barbara Gitenstein, president of the College of New Jersey; Karen Andrade-Mims, executive director of UIH Family Partners; Joan Mason, publisher of the Times of Trenton; and Dr. Naila H. Wasti of RWJ Hamilton Family and Internal Medicine. Other sessions leaders include Lindsay Vastola of Body Project, Mary Pucciarelli of Reilly Financial Group, and Sally Morgan, a vocal trainer. For more information, visit www.midjerseychamber.org or call 609-689-9960.
Zita grew up in Hamilton, where her parents, who had no interest in politics, instilled in her and her sister a sense of responsibility and helping others. “I believe government can help people, despite what people might tell you,” she says. Fueled by this idealism, Zita went to college in Syracuse and graduated with a degree in political science in 1990. She became a legislative assistant for the New York General Assembly in Albany before moving back to her home state to work for Democrat Joe Doria.
“I didn’t start out planning to lobby,” she says. “Like a lot of young people, I started out wanting to make the world a better place and to do something important, so I got into government.”
Zita says she enjoyed working in the Assembly, but her job got more difficult in the 1991 election, when the Republicans seized the Assembly in a landslide election, winning 56 seats in the 80-seat assembly. By 1993 she wasn’t enjoying it so much.
“It was a big change to go from working with the majority, making decisions, and setting agendas to working in the minority,” she says. “When the chance came to leave and to do something in lobbying came along, I thought it was a good time to start something different.”
Zita was offered a job at the Chemical Industry Council and decided to take it. Zita found that her years of working on the other side had given her a chance to learn what made a good lobbyist. “One of the advantages going into lobbying I had was that I had been sitting on the other side of the desk when people would come in to lobby legislators. I got to recognize who did it well and who didn’t do it so well. It’s an art form.”
Zita eventually returned to school and got a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2007 Zita left CIC to join Adam Kaufman’s existing lobbying firm to form Kaufman & Zita. The company now has about 10 staff members and works out of the Ewing train station formerly occupied by architecture firm Clarke Caton-Hintz, which moved to the old Masonic temple in Trenton in 2010.
Zita encountered obstacles in her career because of her gender. “Politics was and continues to be a male-dominated profession,” she says. “The difficult part was developing relationships with an almost all-male legislature and being taken seriously as a woman who had an opinion about policy and politics. I figured out early I couldn’t just say smart things, I had to do smart things and prove myself. I showed up and did my homework. Eventually people realized I was credible, trusted me, and would seek out my opinion.”
Kaufman Zita Group (KZG) has reversed the typical political gender balance, with six women and four men on staff.
But back to Zita’s parents’ question: what exactly does a lobbyist do? Lobbyists are the hired guns who represent special interest groups to the legislative and executive branches of government. Zita says a lobbyist spends her days talking with clients and lawmakers (and their staff) to try to persuade the latter to alter proposed laws.
“We spend time educating legislators about why a particular piece of legislation might be harmful or have unintended consequences,” she says. Usually that means trying to modify a bill to make it more favorable to her clients. “What you want to do, if possible, is to work with legislators to make the bill better or to incorporate ideas that perhaps they didn’t think of or to eliminate those unintended consequences that they were unaware of.”
Lobbyists generally don’t get very much good press. After all, the voters elected the lawmakers to represent their interests, not the interests of the Garden State Brewers Guild or the Driving School Association of New Jersey (both clients of KZG.) But Zita says people like her are necessary for the system to function well.
“I like to explain that there are three branches of government: judicial, legislative, and executive. You don’t go to the judicial branch without a lawyer representing you. So lobbyists are your advocates in the legislative and executive branches of government. We know the process, we understand the rules and how things get done, and we are your voice and your advocate in that process.”
Although KZG does not specialize, it has recently represented a number of health insurance companies. She describes her efforts as advocating in favor of consumers and against “medical price gouging” by hospitals.
She is also representing the Limousine Association of New Jersey. The state legislature is currently considering legislation that will make rules for new app-based transportation services such as Uber and Lyft, and Zita’s firm has been hired to make sure the resulting law protects the existing industry. “We’re working to make sure that their interests are heard and hopefully have legislation that balances everyone’s interests.” (Uber has its own lobbyists working just as hard.)
The firm’s list of clients is a matter of public record because of public reporting laws. Last year the firm represented 27 different organizations, from the Cigar Association of America to the New Jersey Institute of Technology to Citizens Against the Helipad, a group of Summit residents who oppose a medevac landing site at the Overlook Medical Center.
Lobbyists also work for nonprofit groups, and sometimes the lobbyists even feel passionately about the cause they are promoting. Last year KGZ represented Garden State Equality, which was a group advocating for same sex marriage rights. “That’s an issue our colleagues and I worked hard on and felt strongly about and believed in,” Zita says.