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Some Groups Hedge on Lobbying Hires

In what could be an ominous sign for the GOP, a number of corporations and industry trade groups will not fill top positions in their Washington offices until after the November elections.

Freddie Mac, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the Association of Automobile Manufacturers are among a handful of business groups who want to see whether Republicans or Democrats will control the Senate, House and White House before they make key lobbying hires, said officials who represent each of the groups.

Associations and companies “want to see how the election turns out,” said one Republican lobbyist who represents several business interests who have vacant lobbyist positions. “If the Democrats were to win the presidency and take control of the Senate, they are going to want to hire Democrats.”

While lobbyists say the momentum on K Street hasn’t yet shifted toward hiring Democrats over Republicans, the fact that some associations and corporations are growing more concerned about who will control Washington next year marks a rare pause in the decade-long rush to hire Republicans for key lobbying jobs. This push, which began with the Congressional takeover in 1994, has been urged openly by such influential Republicans as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

Michael Lewan, a Democratic lobbyist with Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels LLP, said his firm has “made a conscious decision” to wait and see what happens in the election before filling as many as three openings.

“If Kerry were to win or the Senate were to change hands, that would change the kind of person we would look for,” Lewan said. “This election appears to be a close one. Why rush out and hire people when the landscape could shift?”

In recent years, as President Bush sat in the White House and the Republican Party held majorities in the House and Senate, corporations and trade associations with important business in Washington became increasingly focused on hiring Republicans for the most prominent policy and lobbying jobs.

But the feeling among some businesses, trade associations and lobby shops to hedge their bets comes after Democrats claim to have seized momentum by winning a pair of special elections for House seats.

Democrats also have posted strong poll numbers for the House and are running stronger than expected in several races that will determine which party controls the narrowly divided Senate.

The sentiment for putting off hiring decisions until after the election signals that even some of the party’s most steadfast supporters in the business community are not entirely convinced that the GOP will maintain a full grip on power in Washington after November.

Consider Freddie Mac. The mortgage giant had originally hoped to replace senior Republican lobbyist Mitch Delk within months of his departure. Now, lobbyists close to the search say Freddie Mac plans to hold off until after the election.

Sharon McHale, a spokeswoman for the Freddie Mac, disputed that the company has decided to slow down its recruiting process due to political concerns. But she added the company would prefer to “find the right person than to meet a particular timetable.”

Headhunters say they caution their clients not to get overly concerned about finding a job candidate with perfect partisan connections, especially if it means waiting for several months more.

“If they can find the right person who has credibility on both sides of the aisle, then why wait until after the election?” said Leslie Hortum, who handles executive searches for the firm Spencer Stuart.

Hortum pointed to the recent decision by the Motion Picture Association of America to tap former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.), a former Clinton administration Cabinet member, to become Hollywood’s top Washington lobbyist.

“We found someone we like — we don’t need to wait until after the election,” she said.

Nels Olson, a headhunter with Korn Ferry International, said that he, too, recommends against waiting until after the election to fill key lobbying positions.

“I advise my clients not to make long-term business decisions based on the short-term political realities,” Olson said.

However, Olson acknowledged that some companies prefer to hold off on hiring decisions near election time.

“It’s the normal thing,” he said.