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Michele Coyle Edwards: A Colorful Profile in Courage

One of America’s most sought-after political consultants, Michelle Coyle Edwards discusses struggles she’s overcome and how she’s empowering other women around the country.

By Joan Shipps

Photo by Robert Merhaut
Photo by Robert Merhaut

 

Originally from Oklahoma, Michelle Coyle Edwards, 34, arrived in Alexandria in 2009 with a newly minted MBA from Dartmouth. Today, Edwards proudly calls Virginia home. She loves it here. She created a business here. She bought a house here.

Independent political consultant, managing principal at The Pastorum Group and chief operating officer of Women Get It Done, Edwards is a regular on the political conference circuit. She travels about twice a month to engage with clients and collaborate with colleagues. Frequent stops for the campaign operative include Austin, Las Vegas, New York and San Francisco. Most recently she found herself in route to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center’s annual conference, a liberal-leaning organization that focuses on ballot measures for progressive policy change.

Edwards’ career has been varied. She’s been vice president of a major consulting firm, a campaign field organizer, a video producer, a website project manager, a multinational corporate marketer, a data analyst, a nonprofit consultant, a published writer and even a makeup mogul. She has the resume and the international experience to get a job almost anywhere.

But there’s nowhere Edwards would rather live than in Northern Virginia.

Over breakfast in downtown Washington, D.C., one morning, Edwards spoke about her path to the highest ranks of American politics and her growing influence in regional business and political spheres.

The journey from Lawton
Edwards spent the first 18 years of her life in Lawton, Oklahoma. “I come from a humble background,” she says. “My mom was a teacher and a single mom, and at one point we lived in a trailer.”

Economic circumstances aside, Edwards’ ambition dates back to her earliest years. “I never thought I was going to stay there,” Edwards says of the environment where she was raised. “But so many people I grew up with did, and now that I’m older I realize that where I am is pretty unlikely given where I started.”

Of all her accomplishments to date, Edwards considers leaving an abusive relationship among the most significant in determining her life’s trajectory. “You know in your heart when a situation isn’t healthy for you and you have to leave,” Edwards says. “I did that in my 20s when I was the only one who could see it, and I’m more proud of myself for making that decision than I am of almost anything else in my life.”

Edwards’ firsthand experience with domestic violence inspired her to found Haughty Cosmetics, which produces “luxury handcrafted makeup … with love and careful thought in our studio in Alexandria,” according to the company’s website. The company gives 50 percent of its profits to organizations promoting domestic violence awareness and prevention.

In boutique U.S. shops and select foreign markets, Haughty fans can purchase an innovative, socially conscious cosmetics brand, one that values ethnic diversity and female empowerment. And every item Haughty manufactures is named for an affirmation that empowers women. Eyeshadow shades include Determination and Ambition. Lip gloss colors come in Get ’Em and Live Free Or Die. As for Haughty makeup application brushes? They’re available in a range of sizes, starting with Draw A Hard Line and scaling up to Go Big Or Go Home.

Haughty’s emphasis on female empowerment is hardly just a marketing strategy. The company gives 50 percent of its profits to organizations promoting domestic violence awareness and prevention. Among them is Becky’s Fund, a nonprofit fostering awareness, training and empowering advocates and supporting activism surrounding issues of domestic abuse around the country. And there’s a pressing need for Haughty’s charitable work.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 1 in 5 American women are raped in their lifetimes, about 1 in 4 women endure “severe violence” at the hands of an intimate partner, and roughly 1 in 6 women experience stalking. Men face abuse in their homes, too. Statistically speaking, women are significantly more likely to be the victims of domestic violence, but it is important to note that abusive behavior is not gender specific, and it is always dangerous.

Focusing more on politics than makeup manufacturing these days, Edwards reports she’s scaling back on the time she devotes to Haughty Cosmetics but not on her dedication to advancing women’s rights in the United States.

At Women Get It Done, a women’s networking organization, Edwards is bolstering what she describes as “a national ‘old girls’ network designed to facilitate women helping women.” Edwards also mentors young women through the American University Women and Politics Institute’s WeLead program.

 

Edwards goes to Washington
No slouch as a businesswoman, Edwards is arguably even more successful as a political operative. She is a major player in advancing feminist policy through the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and, depending on what happens in November 2016, possibly even the White House.

The Pastorum Group, which Edwards helped found, describes itself as “a full-service communications and political strategy firm specializing in crisis operations, strategic planning, digital engagement, media relations and coalition building for progressive clients.” Edwards spends her workdays running operations, marketing, business development and long-term growth strategies for political businesses. “Working with progressive campaigns, advocacy groups and nonprofits who fight to make life a little better for all Americans is a true honor,” Edwards said in a Politico article.

“I love politics,” Edwards says. “I love to feel like what I’m doing every day matters, that my work is advancing people and causes I believe in.” Among those causes are the advancement of women’s rights in the United States of America. “Nearest to my heart is work that advances women,” Edwards explains. “We have a horrifying imbalance in representation right now that results in men making decisions that affect women’s lives.”

To put Edwards’ statements in context, 2015 was one of the most contentious years for reproductive rights since 1973, the year the landmark Roe v. Wade decision first allowed for the legal practice of abortion in the United States. Protesters went incognito to “catch” Planned Parenthood in what they call illegal activity, prompting congressional hearings, and Republican-controlled state legislatures passed 57 new anti-abortion laws. Meanwhile, the makeup of Congress last year was more than 80 percent male, putting the United States in 75th place in the world for women’s representation in the national legislature, squarely behind Zimbabwe, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Iraq and Bangladesh. The United States continues to be one of two countries in the world (along with Papua New Guinea) without parental leave or infant care programs for its children, and child care in most states costs more than room and board at a public college. Correspondingly, American mothers are increasingly quitting their jobs to care for children. The United States is rare among the world’s richest countries in that the female labor force participation rate has actually been steadily declining since 2000.

Before launching the new communications firm that works with progressive candidates, The Pastorum Group, with three other partners—Josh Cohen, Brad Bauman and Tory Brown—this past January, Edwards acted as vice president for Rising Tide Interactive, where her chief mission was securing Hillary Clinton the title of first female president of the United States.

With Edwards’ input and direction, Rising Tide built voter mobilization infrastructure for Ready for Hillary, a political action committee devoted to putting Clinton in the Oval Office. The consulting firm constructed a massive database of small donors, would-be volunteers, grassroots organizers and likely voters who connect with the Clinton campaign online and through social media channels. Even before Clinton launched her formal presidential bid, Rising Tide had compiled a list of donors and supporters millions of names long.

The political establishment took notice of Rising Tide’s impressive feat in campaign infrastructure creation. For its enviously helpful contribution to the Clinton camp, Rising Tide received two prestigious Reed Awards in 2015: one for Best Use of Email or Viral Marketing and the other for Best Spanish Language Online Ad.

Though the 2016 election cycle is Edwards’ current professional focus, her career in politics and media dates back years. She has served on campaign staff for various political candidates, including Rep. Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and interned more than a decade ago for Clinton-affiliated HILLPAC. Edwards’ big-name clients are numerous and include the likes of the Democratic National Committee, the Sierra Club and the Victory Fund. For her political messaging successes in television, web video, animation and other forms of online media, Edwards has received seven Pollie awards.

Campaigns & Elections, a revered industry publication, named Edwards a 2015 Rising Star. One of 10 Democrats chosen from a nationwide pool to receive the honor last year, Edwards belongs to an exclusive club of political consultants who advise (and sometimes become) some of the most powerful political figures in the country.

In 2006, American University’s Women and Politics WeLead program awarded Edwards its inaugural Political Ambition Award. If Edwards’ subsequent accomplishments are any indication, it appears American University’s premonitions about Edwards’ future in politics were not misplaced.

Describing how she advances the political capital of women in America today, Edwards explains: “I’m a political consultant, so I work with politicians, campaigns and advocacy groups on a daily basis. But in addition to that, I’m an avid supporter of EMILY’s List, Women Under Forty Political Action Committee, Running Start, Victory Fund and other organizations that work to get more women into office.”

 

Michelle Coyle Edwards, humanized
Given her Ivy League credentials and her Rolodex full of power-brokers, Edwards is almost shockingly down to earth. She enjoys baseball, indulges in Whataburger when geography allows and publicly declares herself a “friend to all koalas.” (When asked to elaborate on what she finds appealing about koalas, Edwards says, “Who doesn’t like koalas?”)

Unlike many political consultants, Edwards appears to let her zest for life inform her professional motivations, rather than the other way around. It’s hardly an exaggeration to point out there are operatives in national politics who would sacrifice their own families and convictions to hold onto money, prestige and power.

Edwards lacks nothing in ambition. But as high as she’s climbed, Edwards continues to cite the well-being of all people—particularly those less fortunate than she—as her motivation for pushing American policy toward equality and justice.
Beyond her advocacy for women’s rights, Edwards has stood up for vulnerable populations numerous times over the years. In July of 2015, Edwards marched with her staff through the streets of Phoenix in nearly 100-degree heat, demanding humane treatment for American immigrants being housed in a federal prison in abysmal conditions and without legal recourse. The march was organized by local activists, and several hundred people participated.

Edwards is no stranger to marching through the streets in the name of justice. In the summer of 2014, the city of Detroit, Michigan, was in crisis. In violation of United Nations treaties surrounding human rights, the city had blocked running water access to a staggering number of homes. That summer, activists, celebrities and labor organizers marched through downtown Detroit demanding clean water for an American population that risked dying of thirst. Detroit subsequently issued a formal moratorium on water shutoffs.

MSNBC noticed Edwards’ presence at the Detroit water march and asked her to explain her motivations. Citing fears that if water shutoffs could happen in Detroit, they could happen anywhere in the United States, Edwards told reporters: “I’m just out here to lend my presence and my voice, to make it bigger. I want the cameras out here; I want everybody to pay attention to what’s going on here. I need everybody to know that this is how Americans are treating Americans right now.”

Edwards travels the country to make America greater, but she has rooted a life for herself in Northern Virginia: You can find her most Friday nights rapping at the Rock It Grill or picking up her latest guilty pleasure, Sugar Shack doughnuts, for which she is an investor. And that’s why she calls it home.

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