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Hoyer’s Own ‘K St. Project’

In an effort to counter the GOP’s vaunted “K Street Project,” senior House Democrats are quietly reaching out to Democratic lobbyists in the business community to re-establish ties that have withered since the party lost control of the House nearly a decade ago.

By opening lines of communication beyond their usual allies in labor unions, environmental groups and women’s organizations, the Democrats hope to win a few more close votes, add a few more dollars to their re-election accounts and, perhaps, win back control of the chamber.

“We’re not ceding ground to Republicans in the business community,” said Stacey Farnen, a spokeswoman for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “This is a long-term effort to build relationships and work with business where we can.”

Hoyer, who is considered more centrist than others in the Democratic leadership, leads the effort. But each of the three Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), plays a role.

Though now just months old, Democratic leaders hope the outreach program may one day rival a far-reaching and disciplined campaign led by Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) that Republicans rely on to move votes and win elections.

“Hoyer has taken a page out of the Republican playbook,” said one Democratic lobbyist involved in the effort. “This is a huge step from the previous leadership by recognizing that the business community can be allied with Democrats on some issues.

Unlike DeLay’s K Street Project, Hoyer aides say the goal of the Democrats’ outreach campaign is to build relationships with K Street lobbyists, not browbeat Washington offices into hiring Democrats.

“We’re certainly not modeled on DeLay’s operation,” Hoyer said.

Since winning the leadership office last fall, Hoyer has invited scores of business lobbyists to sit down with him in his Capitol Hill digs to discuss legislation, share information and just get to know him.

“It’s important for us in industry to have folks in the House Democratic leadership who want to hear from us,” said insurance lobbyist Kim Dorgan.

Pelosi and Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) conduct their own meetings with key lobbyists. Pelosi has stuck mostly to traditional Democratic groups, while Menendez has worked mainly with lobbyists in the financial-services sector, which has a growing presence in his Jersey City district.

To be sure, this is not the first time Democrats have reached out to K Street.

During the Democrats’ four-decade run in the House majority, party leaders from former Speakers Jim Wright (Texas) and Tom Foley (Wash.) to former Majority Whip Tony Coelho (Calif.) and current Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (Mich.) reigned as powerful Capitol Hill allies to business.

But many of those ties loosened after Republicans took control of Congress.

“We haven’t had someone in the House Democratic leadership who has paid any attention to us,” Dorgan said.

While Republicans run the White House and both chambers in Congress, business lobbyists note it is still important to have a line open to the minority.

“I think lobbyists in the business community are interested in getting to know the Democratic leadership,” said Steve Champlin, a former Hoyer aide now with the Duberstein Group.

Hoyer’s efforts to build relationships with the business community form part of a broader outreach project to both Democratic and Republican constituencies.

“That is something he should be doing,” said Coelho, who launched a similar effort during his tenure in the Democratic leadership. “Democrats need to reach out to as many people as possible.”

During his six months in the Whip’s office, Hoyer has held several listening sessions with lobbyists, trade association heads and corporate executives. Last week, for example, he held an hour-long, get-to-know-you meeting with the health care industry. Earlier this year, he held a two-hour dinner with lobbyists from the high-tech sector, including representatives of Cisco and Microsoft.

At the sessions, Hoyer typically introduces himself and his policy aides who organize the outreach campaign. He then goes around the room allowing lobbyists to introduce themselves and talk about issues of concern.

“These are not the sort of shake-your-hand-give-him-a-business-card-and-a-fundraiser-will-call-you-in-an-hour-type meetings,” said one Democratic lobbyist who has attended a session.

Added Sandy Boyd, a lobbyist with the National Association of Manufacturers: “The point of the meeting was to make contact and reassure folks that he has an open door.”

Under the direction of Chief of Staff Cory Alexander, Hoyer’s overall outreach program is run by Marta David, a former AFL-CIO strategist who began her career with Coelho.

The outreach to K Street is handled by Gina Mahoney, who joined Hoyer’s operation last fall from Rep. Cal Dooley’s (D-Calif) office.

“Merely having a point of contact is a major first step to developing an open line of communication,” said Farnen. “Just to be able to call the Whip office is a major step forward.”

Democratic lobbyists also get scheduling information from Hoyer, as well as Democratic policy statements and updates on key bills.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Steve Ricchetti, a Democratic operative who has helped Hoyer identify lobbyists to attend the sessions. “It’s to get advice about what’s going on in the business community and to remind people that there are a huge number of items in the Democratic agenda that enjoy wide support on K Street.”

But winning the trust of business lobbyists can be difficult for a Democratic leader who has promised to remain true to his party’s ideals.

Earlier this month, for example, Hoyer led the Democratic charge against President Bush’s $550 billion tax cut on the House floor. He dubbed the business-backed plan “breathtakingly brash and irresponsible.”

In the previous session of Congress, Hoyer opposed another key business priority — an effort to expand Bush’s ability to negotiate free trade agreements, known as trade-promotion authority.

The TPA legislation was a top priority of the high-tech community, which exports a majority of its products.

“It’s very hard for us to support a Member if they don’t support the biggest piece of legislation for the benefit of the tech community,” said Brian Kelly, a Republican lobbyist for the Electronics Industry Association. “If you don’t support us on TPA, we can’t support your campaign. Hoyer didn’t support TPA.”

Still, Hoyer and his allies say the sessions are more about giving industry a contact in the Democratic leadership than promising to support every piece of pro-business legislation to reach the House floor.

“What we try to do with all the groups is say we are going to agree on a lot of issues and disagree on others,” Hoyer said in an interview. “And where we agree, we ought to work together.”

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