The Hill | November 17, 2015 | By Kristina Wong |
Michael Herson may be one of Washington’s top defense lobbyists today, but in the past he’s worked at drive-ins, warehouses and kitchens.
He’s even worn a chicken suit.
It’s that strong work ethic, Herson said in a recent interview with The Hill, that’s allowed him to build a company from scratch into one of the most powerful defense firms in D.C. — American Defense International (ADI), where he is president and chief executive officer.
Herson grew up in New Jersey. His father, a World War II veteran, was very poor as a boy and credits his stay at a camp for disadvantaged youth for turning his life around. Using the GI Bill to earn a college degree, his father went to law school and on to a career in entertainment law during the golden era of Broadway.
Herson started working when he was 11, painting poles and picking up garbage at drive-in movie theaters and packing candy at warehouses. He also stood in front of a fried-chicken restaurant in a chicken suit to attract customers.
He said those skills came in handy when he first came to Washington, D.C., and started from the ground up.
As an undergrad at Georgetown University, he began interning on Capitol Hill with then-Rep. Jim Courter (R-N.J.). In an era before the Internet and personal computers, Herson did a lot of photocopying.
He was selected as an intern for the White House during the Reagan administration. There, interns rotated between different departments, including the executive office, the National Security Council, the Office of Public Affairs and the Office of the First Lady.
By the end of his internship, at 21, Herson was working in the speech writing office for then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Herson remembers being invited to Bush’s Christmas party at the Naval Observatory. The former vice president and later president spoke to the interns, before talking to anyone else, Herson said. He also took time to mentor them.
“He was a super, super nice guy,” Herson recalled.
Herson then took a class in campaign management, went to law school in New Jersey and worked on several state campaign races.
When Bush was elected president in 1988, Herson accepted a political appointment as a special assistant to the assistant Defense secretary of force management and personnel, which Herson said introduced him to the world of defense policy.
It was there he became steeped in military recruitment, readiness, training and mobilizing. He also traveled to military bases and obtained a master’s degree in national security studies from Georgetown University.
After Bush lost reelection to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992, Herson worked to represent the Naval Station Great Lakes as the Pentagon was going through a round of military base closures. He also worked at a think tank, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution.
In 1993, at 28, his county chairman in New Jersey contacted him to run for the state legislature. He moved to New Jersey and took a job at a healthcare company.
Herson won the Republican primary but lost the campaign to longtime New Jersey Democratic congressman Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. Nonetheless, he received national attention for the campaign. Notables, from then-House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) to action movie star Chuck Norris, stumped for him.
It was then Herson decided to create his own lobbying firm. His goal was a company that would do more than lobby Congress — it would build bridges to the Pentagon and the military services, too.
He began with a meager budget. He attended auctions to snag phone systems and office furniture. He found cheap office space by subleasing temporary space.
“We moved a lot in the initial years,” Herson admitted.
His mother — a former print and broadcast journalist who at one time wrote profiles for The Hill — helped write his first press releases.
Now, the company, which has been operating since 1995, has 70 client bases in eight
ADI is different from other firms, Herson said, because “we combine the political with the military.”
ADI represents companies of all sizes, on issues as diverse as weapons systems, space launches, information technology and communications, defense health services and telemedicine — even bingo services at military bases.
Herson compared his business to the reality television series “Pawn Stars.”
“You never know what’s going to walk in that door,” he said.
Herson said he’s lucky to live in the Washington, D.C.-metro area, which gives his children exposure to an international community of all “shapes, sizes and colors.”
His daughter, who is 14 and a high school freshman, is singing the national anthem at a Wizards NBA game in a few weeks.
In his spare time, Herson’s hobby is winemaking, and he is launching a wine label early next year under the name Herson Family Vineyards. His first wine will be a cabernet sauvignon grown from grapes in Napa, Calif.
Herson is also actively involved in volunteer work, including serving the military.
He is organizing this year’s Thanksgiving dinner at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland for recovering troops. His two teenage children will be volunteering as well.
He has hosted the Little Heroes Ball for children of wounded veterans.
Herson also sits on the board of Surprise Lake Camp, which his father attended as a child. He said he hopes to carry on the legacy.
“[Dad] never forgot the people who helped him get to where he was,” Herson said.