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HHH in ’68



Heather Howard’s Journey in Politics and Policy

By Donald Gilpin

Images courtesy of Heather Howard

Readers old enough to have been politically aware in 1968 will probably recognize the slogan “HHH in ’68!”  Hubert H. Humphrey lost his bid for the presidency that year to Richard Nixon. But Humphrey was not the only triple H political figure on the scene then. Princeton Councilwoman Heather Harding Howard, lecturer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, faculty affiliate of the Center for Health and Wellbeing, and director of State Health and Value Strategies, was born that year. And she owns a couple of “HHH in ’68” posters to commemorate that fact.

Political engagement, with the determination to make a positive difference on all levels, has been a hallmark of Howard’s life.

“Maybe it was in my blood to care about policy and politics, even from birth,” she says. “I was born in October 1968, just a couple of weeks before the election.” It was a year of intense political activity, with the Vietnam War raging and anti-war protests gaining momentum throughout the country and the world; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June; the Prague Spring followed in August by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; Lyndon Johnson’s decision not to run for a second term; widespread demonstrations, disorder, violence, and arrests at the Democratic Convention in Chicago; and Nixon’s eventual election victory over Humphrey and George Wallace.

High energy, seriousness of purpose, determination, and focus are reflected in Howard’s demeanor and in the impressive accomplishments and the relentless productivity of her distinguished career so far.

Howard grew up in Westchester County, New York. Her father was a stockbroker on Wall Street, and her mother was a high school history teacher. Both are now retired. She attended Duke University and, after graduating in 1990 with degrees in history and Spanish, wasted no time before plunging into politics with an entry-level job as staff assistant for Westchester Congresswoman Nita Lowey.

On Capitol Hill

“She was one of a number of very inspiring women bosses I’ve had who have been very formative in my development,” Howard says. “She was terrific, and I worked for her during some really exciting times, including during the Clarence Thomas hearings.” Lowey, who is still in Congress, now a senior member of the House Committee on Appropriations, was one of the six congresswomen who walked over to the Senate to demand that it hear Anita Hill in the controversy over Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

“My political schooling was right at the time when women in politics were flexing their muscles and creating a critical mass, with reactions to the Clarence Thomas hearings, then the election of 1992, when there were more women in Congress than there had ever been, and I was working for this wonderful, progressive, dynamic congresswoman,” Howard recalls.

“It was really an exciting time to be a young person on the Hill,” continued Howard. There was so much going on. This was the time when the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues was enacting legislation to require that NIH (National Institutes of Health) include women in clinical trials. Up until then medical research was done on male rats—not even female rats. It was an exciting time.”

Howard emphasized the impact of working with and learning from women “who had been real pioneers.” She remembers, “being on the Hill at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings as a 22-, 23-year-old and when there were so few women in Congress, to see the role that the women in the House played in trying to elevate the issue of harassment. And now we’re back talking about those issues.”

She describes the excitement and inspiration of seeing women mobilize, then seeing more women get elected in 1992. From the perspective of the early 1990s, Howard, who says she embraces the term “feminist,” has mixed feelings about the current status of the women’s movement. “It’s sad to me,” she says, “that 25 years ago we were talking about these issues and now we’re back talking about harassment and violence against women. But it’s also exciting in the sense that there seems to be a really strong momentum for change now, and hopefully a new generation coming up will pick up the mantle and take up the fight.”

She adds, “I’m heartened by the new momentum and new energy behind this, and I hope that 25 years from now we’re not back having the same conversation.”

After four years as Lowey’s legislative assistant and policy adviser, Howard entered NYU School of Law, where she earned her JD cum laude in 1997 and went to serve as a judicial clerk for Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, another pioneer and inspirational role model for Howard.

“Everything she’d done, she’d been the first woman,” Howard says. “She was the first woman on the Tennessee Supreme Court. She’d been such a pioneer.”

Accepted into the U.S. Department of Justice’s Honors Program, Howard next served as a trial attorney in the Antitrust Division’s Health Care Task Force.  It was at this point that she realized that she belonged in the world of politics, rather than law. “I tried being a real lawyer,” she says, “and it wasn’t really for me. I felt the pull of politics again.  I went to the White House to work on the Domestic Policy Council with the first lady, Hillary Clinton.”

Howard served as associate director of President Bill Clinton’s Domestic Policy Counsel and senior policy adviser to Hillary Clinton for the remainder of Clinton’s term, working on domestic and family issues. “Obviously,” Howard noted, “that was a very exciting time to be there. That was my trajectory, and of course I’ve been in and out of politics and policy in a variety of ways since then.”

After the George W. Bush Republican victory in the 2000 election, the administration changed and jobs for Democrats in Washington became scarce, but Howard headed to the Senate. “At the time it was 50 Republicans, 50 Democrats, so it was the place to go,” she says. “I landed with Jon Corzine, the new senator from New Jersey, as his counsel.”

From 2001 to 2006, Howard served as legislative counsel, deputy chief of staff for policy and planning, and finally as chief of staff, advising Corzine on policy development, legislative strategy, constituent services, communications, and personnel. She worked on legislation to expand access to prenatal care, increase federal funding to New Jersey health care providers, and protect the state’s Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Aged and Disabled program when the federal Medicare prescription program was implemented.  

Howard recalls, “The first bill Corzine introduced (and I wrote) was a bill to ban racial profiling, a reaction to the problems with the New Jersey State Police and the racial profiling that was happening on the New Jersey Turnpike.” She points out that the work she did there reflects on her current work as Princeton Council member with the Princeton Police Department, addressing the question of “what are fair and effective police practices?”

As a major force in the field of health care, Howard, in the early 2000s, presaging Obamacare that would come along several years later, wrote a universal health care bill that Corzine introduced.

Howard on the job as New Jersey commissioner of health and senior services in Governor Corzine’s administration.

To New Jersey

Howard’s political journeys were far from over, and it was the next move that eventually brought her to Princeton. After clerking in the federal courts, working in the House, then the White House, then the Senate, Howard had served in all three branches of government. What lay ahead for her was a plunge into state government. Corzine, elected New Jersey governor in 2005, persuaded her to come to the Garden State, and she quickly realized that she could potentially have a far greater impact in Trenton than in Washington.

“Corzine convinced me of the old adage that the states are the laboratory of innovation,” she says. “I came to New Jersey, and moved up here to Princeton to work with the governor. And now I’ve really become a state-y at heart.”

Howard directed the governor’s policy agenda, advising on all policy issues and directing the policy staff. She worked closely with the Governor’s Commission on Rationalizing Healthcare Resources, a group studying the state’s financially-stressed health care delivery system; and played a key role in supporting New Jersey FamilyCare, the state’s health insurance program for low-income children and families.

In January 2008, Howard became commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, overseeing a cabinet-level agency with a $3.5 billion budget and a staff of 1,700, as she continued to work on many of the issues to which she had devoted the previous two decades of her career.

Her lifelong commitment to health equity and the improvement of public health services was amplified when her infant son was diagnosed with cancer shortly before Howard and her family left D.C. “My son Nate had cancer when he was 2 years old,” she recalls. “We were living in D. C. and had access to the best health care. We went to Johns Hopkins for treatment and I saw personally what it meant to have good health insurance and to be able to take care of our son. He’s fine now, but this was before the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Fifty million people in this country lacked health insurance and the ability to get that quality of care.”

Howard describes how state government, particularly with the current gridlock in Washington, has more power than the federal government to effect meaningful change.  “The action has really hit the state level,’ she says. “What I had thought going in has been borne out. There’s so much you can do at the state level. You have more levers for change and can move faster than at the federal level.”

She added, “We’ve seen so much dysfunction at the federal level. We’re going to see even more action at the state level now with the new governor.” Howard was a member of Governor Phil Murphy’s transition team, and she currently serves as director of State Health and Value Strategies and faculty affiliate of the Center for Health and Wellbeing based at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.

She joined the Woodrow Wilson School faculty as a lecturer, teaching courses in implementation of the ACA, state and local health policy, public health and politics, and the social determinants of health. She has also been working to help other states implement the ACA and other reforms.

Last December Howard traveled to Los Angeles to testify before the California State Assembly about the California health reform effort. “They’re struggling with the next step in health reform,” she says. “Not everybody who needs health insurance has health insurance. What are the next steps? There’s a lot of interesting policy thinking going on now about that.”

Just as health care legislation in Massachusetts, when Mitt Romney was governor there, led to the creation of the ACA, Howard predicts that the next wave of health reform will happen at the state level.

“Different models develop at the state level,” she explains. “The spade work happens at the state level. The effects bubble up and eventually generate a federal response. That’s what’s so exciting about working at the state level. It’s interesting for me to be able to see the different ideas across the country, how health reform in California looks different from health reform in Vermont and Minnesota.”

Municipal Government in Princeton

Seven years ago, Howard immersed herself in yet another realm of politics and policy: Borough Council for one year before consolidation, then two terms on the Princeton Council. “Serving locally was another way to think about the role of government in people’s lives and how we can have effective, progressive government,” she said.

“It’s been wonderful to be involved locally because we have so many people in the community who are involved, and we have such robust local institutions,” she points out. “It’s been exciting to see how the national issues play out locally.”

In addition to her ongoing focus and acknowledged authority on health care and human services, Howard mentioned her collaboration with the Princeton Police Department and Police Chief Nick Sutter, citing “all the work we’ve been doing to strengthen ties with the community, which may mean not enforcing immigration laws and communicating that to the community so that everybody feels the police are there for them.”

She continues, “Sutter is a transformational leader. It’s rewarding to work with people like that. It’s amazing what he’s done, bringing two departments [Borough and Township] together and setting this incredible tone.”

She describes a particularly gratifying initiative where the Council helped to save the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) clinic in Princeton, which provides food vouchers and health care services to women who are pregnant or have children under 5.

“A couple of years ago we were at risk of losing the clinic because our participation had gone down. People in Princeton who qualified would have had to go all the way to Trenton for the monthly clinic. But we organized. We met with the county organizers and we saved the WIC clinic. You can see very concretely what a local program can do to support vulnerable populations and create a safety net.”

Howard emphasizes the importance of the WIC program and the often overlooked disparities in income in Princeton. “Even though Princeton is known as a wealthy community,” she says, “our vulnerable populations have significant needs.”

Looking Ahead

Having announced that she will be stepping down from Council at the end of her current term in December this year, Howard lists her top priorities: the town’s adoption of a health-in-all-policies approach, infused into policy-making in all departments; continuing support for the police and the reforms they are making; supporting Princeton values in pushing back against all the regressive policies from Washington; working with the new administration in Trenton, doing what can be done at the local level to promote a progressive agenda of good government.

Two particular issues that stand out on Howard’s agenda are maternal and child health and health insurance coverage. Noting that American babies in general are much more likely to die in the first year of life than are babies born in many other parts of the world and citing a “particularly insidious racial and ethnic disparity,” Howard pointed out that New Jersey has the worst disparity in the country between African American and white infant mortality.  “When I was commissioner of health, I focused on improving access to prenatal care,” she says. “And the health transition team that I co-chaired for Governor Murphy urged the new administration to get on that issue. That’s one that we can talk about locally, that the state needs to focus on, and that really needs concerted long-term focus to be able to reverse those horrible trends.”

On the related issue of health insurance, however the ACA may be reshaped in New Jersey, Howard will certainly be involved.  “It’s a pivotal moment to see all the improvements in people gaining coverage,” she says. “Is that going to last? Are we going to see positive health improvements? We had 50 million uninsured before the ACA became law. We got that number down to the low 30 millions, which was tremendous progress, but that’s going up now. We’re the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn’t have universal access to health care coverage. That’s a continuing struggle we’re going to have to engage in.”

Howard will leave her Council seat at the end of the year, and she might even find a few more hours each week to spend with her son and her husband, who works as a federal public defender in Philadelphia. But it is impossible to imagine Heather Howard, official position or not, less than 100 percent involved in politics and policy on every level. 

“I’m confident that the town is in a good place,” she says. “There are a lot of great people who can serve. I can imagine getting involved in different ways later in life. Wherever I can be most helpful, I’m sure I’ll be involved in various capacities. I’m not going anywhere.”

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert, for one, will be happy to hear that. “Heather is a policy rock star, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have her serve on our local governing body,” Lempert says. “She has used her extensive experience at the state and federal level to help elevate the work of the entire Council. There are are not many boards of health in the country that can boast of having the former state health commissioner among their members.”

Lempert continues, “Heather has been instrumental in making Princeton a leader in anti-smoking efforts, in ensuring services like the WIC clinic stay in Princeton, and in facilitating workshops to educate residents about their options under the Affordable Care Act.”

Emphasizing Howard’s valuable legacy as consolidated Princeton’s first police commissioner, Lempert adds, “Heather has been instrumental in helping to foster the transformative partnership between the police department and human services department.  Under her tenure as commissioner, the police department has built an unprecedented collaborative and productive relationship with Princeton’s immigrant communities and has received recognition on the state level, and even at the federal level by members of the Obama administration, for their professionalism and community outreach efforts.”

Looking ahead as Howard prepares to step down from her Council position, Lempert concludes, “I am going to miss Heather’s quick mind and eloquence on the dais, and her exceptional policy-making skills. I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve with her and to learn from her.” 

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