In her youth, Beth Clay used to listen to her grandfather speak of his love for politics, and tagged along with him to political rallies and speeches. Intrigued by the political process, that little girl has grown up to become one of Mississippi’s most successful lobbyists, though the path was far from straight.
“Its fun — and challenging,” says Clay, who formed The Clay Firm a decade ago. “It is definitely stressful, and can be heartbreaking when you lose. But I feel what I do is important, and I love it.”
Clay was born in rural Kemper County, and traveled 15 miles to school each morning. She led a simple country life, much of it spent with her grandfather, “Papa,” who came to live with her family.
She gained a unique education from Papa’s stories and philosophies, but she also excelled in school. She earned an academic scholarship to East Mississippi Community College and then Mississippi State University.
At State, Clay majored in English, and spent the first seven years of her professional life teaching the subject in Jackson schools. She describes her teaching days as some of the most rewarding she has experienced, but earlier influences came to bear.
In 1975, she enrolled in the first daytime classes offered by the Mississippi College School of Law, and she soon exhibited her determination. Her husband, a physician, wanted to move to and practice in Meridian. Not wanting to give up her law school work, Clay commuted from Meridian to Jackson to earn her degree.
Upon graduation from law school, Clay went to work at the Secretary of State’s Office as assistant secretary of state in charge of corporations. In this role, she was required to be at the Capitol, working with lawmakers to get legislation introduced and passed. Little did she know, this experience would change her life.
She went on to become executive director of the Capitol Commission, responsible for securing funding and serving during the major renovation of the new State Capitol.
But the law kept calling. Concerned that her research skills might become rusty if she waited too long to go into legal practice, Clay left the Capitol Commission and came on board with a Jackson law firm. She would be named partner, and due to her prior legislative experience, began taking on more and more work that required Capitol time. When a court case she was involved in more than 25 years ago conflicted with the opening of the legislative session, Clay found herself in a dilemma. She eventually worked out a deal with legislators — they agreed not to work on issues she was involved in until the trial ended — but Clay realized her career path was not going to wind through courtrooms.
Clay continued to work as of counsel for the law firm doing governmental affairs work for several years, but in 1997 formed The Clay Firm, whose office is short walking distance from the Capitol.
Today, Clay is one of the most successful lobbyists in Mississippi. In fact, she has ranked at or near the top of the highest-paid Mississippi lobbyists list for approximately a decade now.
She represents a wide range of clients. They include Fortune 500 corporations, nonprofits, hospitals and local governments. Industries include healthcare, education, public utilities, entertainment and economic development.
Clay’s days can be long and challenging. During the legislative session, she is often up at 4 a.m., and is at the office reviewing bills introduced and lawmakers’ actions at 5 a.m. She is at the Capitol for morning meetings at 7:30 a.m., and is often there long after sunset. Sometimes she gets lunch, but other times she runs back to the office during any free time to report back to clients and get their feedback.
When she first started 10 years ago, Clay says she and other lobbyists had more downtime when lawmakers were out. But she says those days are over, and non-session days are often filled with meetings and entertaining clients.
Clay says to be a successful lobbyist requires a number of skills and qualities.
“You have to have good communication skills, as well as good research skills,” she says. “You have to like people, and be humble. And, you have to honest and trustworthy. You have to be concerned about the legislators, tell them both sides of an issue so they can go back home and tell their constituents what they are doing and why.
“The only thing I have is my word, so it is important that legislators and their staffs trust me.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.