In the decade since Republicans took control of Congress, GOP partisans have relentlessly worked to transform members of Washington’s business community into powerful advocates for the party’s priorities on Capitol Hill.
They have pressured corporations to hire Republican lobbyists. They have prodded corporate lobbyists to work on Congressional campaigns. And they have met regularly with lobbyists on Capitol Hill in order to plot strategy — and hand out marching orders.
Now the Democrats are fighting back.
Swiping a page from the GOP playbook, Democrats in the House and Senate have quietly launched a coordinated effort to reach out to their Democratic friends on K Street.
The idea is to share intelligence, plot strategy and coordinate the party’s message. In the short term, the organizers of the effort hope to advance their priorities on Capitol Hill.
In the long term, they hope the enhanced coordination will help Democrats win a few more close votes, add a few more dollars to their re-election accounts and, perhaps, win back control in Washington.
In the Senate, Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) — along with Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) — began holding weekly sessions with like-minded business lobbyists in June.
On the other side of the Capitol, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) launched a similar effort earlier this year after taking over as Minority Whip. Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) plans to hire an aide this fall to coordinate her own outreach to the business community.
“We are not trying to mimic Republicans, but we know that there are Democrats who are now in private practice who still have some very good ideas,” said Carper Chief of Staff Jonathon Jones, who helped conceive the idea. “All we are trying to do is open up the lines of communication.”
Along with Jones, the meetings are organized by Kohl Chief of Staff Paul Bock and Daschle aides Mark Patterson and Peter Rouse.
Also helping to organize the sessions and select the participants are a handful of lobbyists: Bill Andreson of the Dutko Group, Michael Lewan of The Michael Lewan Co., Larry Stein of the Harbour Group, Rich Tarplin of Timmons & Co., Patrick Griffin of Griffin, Johnson, Dover & Stewart, and David Castignetti of Bergner Bockorny.
“We want to make sure that everyone is rowing in the same direction,” said Tarplin, who worked for Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) before heading to the Clinton administration.
Though the Democrats say the meetings are not patterned after the GOP game plan, the Republicans’ strong ties to their allies on K Street clearly spurred Democrats to launch their own effort.
“After I left the Hill, it struck me that Republicans in town are making much better use of the talents of those who had left the Hill,” said lobbyist Andreson, a former top aide to Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). “There was not as useful of an exchange between Democrats on the Hill and Democrats off the Hill.”
Each Monday when Congress is in session, about 30 current and former Democratic aides meet in a spare conference room at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters, where they “compare notes, share information and develop a coherent message,” according to Democrats.
“In this town, information is your greatest currency,” said Brad Woodhouse, a DSCC spokesman. “Sometimes people downtown hear things that we don’t and sometimes we hear things that they don’t.”
In the House, Democratic leaders are gearing up their own efforts with Hoyer playing the most active role.
Hoyer launched his campaign as soon as he moved into the Minority Whip’s office.
“We think it is important to have an ongoing dialogue with groups from across the political spectrum,” said Stacey Farnen, a Hoyer spokeswoman. “This long-term effort will strengthen the party and our chances of taking back the House.”
During his nine months in the Whip’s office, Hoyer has held several listening sessions with like-minded lobbyists, trade association leaders and corporate executives.
In addition to the get-to-know-you meetings with business lobbyists, he has thrown several dinners with lobbyists from the high-tech sector representing such companies as Cisco Systems 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.
Hoyer’s outreach program is directed by Marta David, a former AFL-CIO strategist who began her career with former Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), a onetime Whip himself.
The hands-on outreach to K Street is handled by Gina Mahoney, who joined Hoyer’s office last fall from Rep. Cal Dooley’s (D-Calif.) staff.
Cory Alexander, Hoyer’s chief of staff, also sits in on the meetings.
The meetings hosted by the Democratic leader have “made it clear to traditional Democratic allies, and some nontraditional, that the door is always open to talk about how we can work together to advance a positive agenda,” Farnen said.
Democratic lobbyists also get scheduling information from Hoyer, as well as Democratic policy statements and updates on key bills.
In exchange, Congressional Democrats can get valuable information and strategic advice from their K Street allies.
Lobbyists can be of “exceptional value as an extension of your own staff,” Coelho said. “If they were honest and straight-forward, we had a great source for information all the time.”
While the main purpose of the House and Senate sessions is to trade information and plot strategy, several of the Democrats involved in the sessions say that the Democrats also hope to find a way to pitch the party as more pro-business than is commonly thought.
“Democrats are not getting much recognition on their pro-business accomplishments,” said Jones, the Carper aide.
Tarplin added: “What we need to do is a better job of selling what Democrats have done for business and econmic growth — rather than let Republicans label Democrats as anti-business.”