Elizabeth Wilkins has the kind of credentials that could take her anywhere in DC: degrees from Sidwell Friends and Yale Law School, clerkships with Elena Kagan and Merrick Garland, a stint as senior adviser to White House chief of staff Ron Klain. But during the first year of the Biden presidency, as Wilkins watched the new administration take shape, one particular agency struck her as “the most exciting place” to tackle economic injustice: the Federal Trade Commission.
Once a backwater, the FTC has recently emerged as a cauldron of provocative policy ideas under its young, ambitious chair, Lina Khan. In February, Wilkins became director of the FTC’s office of policy planning, and she now leads the agency’s inquiries into issues such as prescription-drug prices, the baby-formula shortage, and, of course, antitrust.
Wilkins says she’s eager to “make people think twice about setting up a whole business model that is premised on extraction and exploitation.” For decades, the FTC has primarily evaluated mergers in terms of whether they would raise consumer prices. Now Wilkins wants the agency to consider a broader array of potential harms, including how mergers hurt workers’ wages and hinder small businesses’ ability to compete. The goal: “Making the government sensitive to the needs and wants of ordinary people,” she says.
A native of Southwest DC, Wilkins is the daughter of Patricia King, the first Black person to earn tenure at Georgetown Law, and the noted journalist and civil-rights leader Roger Wilkins, whose career included a stretch heading the Community Relations Service under President Lyndon Johnson. “When this country was burning in 1968, he was the government guy they sent to understand what’s happening on the ground,” she says, describing her father’s efforts to witness the pain and rage people felt on the streets and “make it real” to government officials who had the power to help.
Shaped by her parents’ commitment to public service, Wilkins has avoided the private sector. In 2015, after clerking for Justice Kagan, she took a job with DC attorney general Karl Racine, helping start his office’s public-advocacy division. “Honestly, it had been a dream of mine to work for the city,” she says. “I grew up here with an enormous amount of privilege, and that creates an obligation to give back.”
Now Wilkins and her husband—who met in kindergarten at Sidwell and live in Mount Pleasant—are raising their kids with the same sense of responsibility. Wilkins’s dad used to tell her every morning to “use this day well,” and she keeps a sign with that phrase in her office. It reminds her to always ask, “How am I using this day? And who am I using it for?”
This article appears in the August 2022 issue of Washingtonian.