Pam, as we knew her then, was once a student activist at Tufts, where she was involved in the South Africa divestment and anti-nuclear movements. Upon graduation, she asked a professor how she could keep doing this kind of work for a living. She was told, as were many others back then, “Ralph Nader hires young people.”
Sure enough, Pam landed in Washington, D.C., with a job at Ralph’s National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting. As Sam Simon tells it, in the days before cell phones and computers, Pam’s duties included staffing the front desk. For callers and visitors, Pam was the organization’s first face — warm, quick to smile, but tough as they come mentally and politically. Ralph passed her desk every day. On her last day, Ralph grabbed a piece of paper and wrote (prophetically, as it turns out), “To Pam Gilbert, who will never leave public interest work.”
After the Nader job, Pam accepted a Root-Tilden Public Interest Law scholarship to attend NYU Law School. She worked with CALPIRG in Berkeley during her first law school summer and with ACLU during her second. After graduating, Pam became our fourth-ever hire for U.S. PIRG (following Rick Hind, Gene Karpinski and Lauren Pooler) — and our first-ever consumer advocate. As Jerry Skomer, her old boss at CALPIRG, put it, “Pam was and is a pioneer.”
She fit perfectly with our D.C. office’s emerging brand of clearheaded, straight-talking advocacy, and brought her own personal ethos of participation, pitching in to build the new enterprise in every respect, from canvass briefings to softball. Susan Rakov, now managing director of our network’s Frontier Group and the D.C. canvass director in the summer of 1985, says, “Pam set a standard of productivity and excellence just by being in the room — and, at the same time, she was funny and kind. When I was a brand-new professional organizer, I wanted to grow up to be like Pam.”
In 1988, Pam authored and successfully lobbied for U.S. PIRG’s federal Art and Craft Materials Labeling Act, which regulated toxic ingredients in school art supplies.
Starting in 1989, Pamela worked at Public Citizen’s Congress Watch as legislative director and then executive director. She worked with state attorneys general, law enforcement officials, law firms and victims of white collar crime to defeat legislation that would have gutted the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. As a result, advocates were later able to take legal action under RICO against the tobacco industry, the Ku Klux Klan, and corrupt savings and loan institutions.
In 1994, Pamela became the executive director of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). At the CPSC, she spearheaded the aggressive recall of dangerous products, especially those marketed to children, and she was recognized in 1995 as Consumer Advocate of the Year by the Trial Lawyers’ Association of Metropolitan Washington D.C.
Today, Pamela is a consumer attorney with the D.C. law firm Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, where she has been a partner since 2003. Among her accomplishments was the uphill but ultimately successful drive to pass the Safe Rental Car Act of 2015. The Act requires rental car companies to repair any safety recall defects and is named for Raechel and Jacqueline Houck, sisters who were killed in a rental car that caught on fire and crashed as a result of an unrepaired defect that had been subject to a safety recall.
Veteran consumer advocate Rosemary Shahan summed up our feelings about Pam: “Not only is Pamela one of the nation’s leading safety champions, she is an incredible joy to work with. If she were a rock star, she’d be tops on all the charts. Instead, she quietly works away, out of the limelight, to the tremendous benefit of the entire American public.”
Pamela Gilbert is the fifth recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award, which we created to recognize alumni of The Public Interest Network who have made important contributions to the public interest movement in their post-PIRG careers. Past recipients include John Richard, NYPIRG alumnus and director of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law; Ed Lloyd, NJPIRG alumnus and founder of the Environmental Law Clinic at Rutgers University; Adam Ruben, Green Corps and U.S. PIRG alumnus and former political director of MoveOn.org; and Mindy Lubber, PIRG and Green Century Funds alumna and president of Ceres.