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K Street Watches, Waits Before Filling Vacancies

One of the spoils of winning an election is the ability to hand out jobs. And this year, the eyes of K Street are watching the presidential and Congressional elections with unusual intensity.

Lobbyists at dozens of corporate offices, trade associations and law firms in Washington are waiting to determine which political party controls the White House and Congress before they fill a slew of openings.

If Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) defeats President Bush — and especially if Democrats also win a majority in the Senate — many of the key lobbying slots over the next two years will be filled by Democrats.

But if the GOP retains control in Washington, most of those jobs will surely go to Republicans.

“If Kerry were to win or the Senate were to change hands, that would change the kind of person we would look for,” said Michael Lewan, a Democratic lobbyist with the firm Brown Rudnick Berlack Israels LLP who is looking to hire three lobbyists by the end of the year.

Freddie Mac, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the American Insurance Association also are looking to fill key lobbing posts.

“They want to see how the election turns out,” said one Republican lobbyist who represents several business interests that are in the market for senior lobbyists.

Because of the electoral uncertainty, many corporations, trade associations and law firms have decided to wait until after the election before making any hiring decisions.

“This election appears to be a close one. Why rush out and hire people when the landscape could shift?” Lewan said.

Historically, the partisan balance on K Street has reflected the balance of power on Capitol Hill.

For latter half of the 20th century, Democrats held most top lobbying positions due to the Democrats’ 40-year reign on Capitol Hill.

But when the GOP won control of the House and Senate in 1994, key GOP lawmakers began hiring Republicans to fill lobbying positions.

Some of this shift was inevitable: All other factors being equal, most companies would prefer to be represented by lobbyists with strong contacts in — and inside knowledge about — the majority party in Congress.

But the Republican majority also saw the value of having allies on K Street — partly for spoils, and partly to bolster its own agenda by utilizing that industry’s resources.

So in recent years, the Republican effort — including one high-profile plan known as the “K Street Project” — has accelerated, hoping to push along a partisan shift on K Street that many Republicans believe is taking too long.

Aides to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mont.), Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) have been among the most active in the effort. Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist has also been intimately involved with the initiative.

The campaign has paid some dividends, as Republicans have snared a significantly higher share of key lobbying jobs.

Take Cassidy & Associates. One of Washington’s largest lobbying firms, Cassidy & Associates had long been viewed as a Democratic-leaning firm led by Chairman Gerald Cassidy, a well-known Democrat, and President Martin Russo, a former Democratic House Member from Illinois.

But in recent years, the firm has strived to shed that reputation by hiring from GOP ranks. Last year it hired Gregg Hartley, a top deputy to the House Republican leadership, to serve as senior vice president.

Today, the firm boasts that two-thirds of its lobbyists are Republicans.

But Republican dominance of K Street is not yet complete.

As recently as this summer, the GOP failed to convince the Motion Picture Association of America to hire a Republican to succeed Jack Valenti, who is set to retire as Hollywood’s man in Washington after a long and legendary tenure.

Instead, the trade association announced in August that it had hired former Clinton administration Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

The move infuriated Republicans. Santorum even raised the issue of Glickman’s hire at a closed-door meeting of high-ranking Republican Senators.

“Yeah, we had a meeting and, yeah, we talked about making sure that we have fair representation on K Street,” Santorum said soon after the hire. “I admit that I pay attention to who is hiring, and I think it’s important for leadership to pay attention.”

Some lobbyists speculate that Congressional Republicans will seek to punish the movie industry legislatively for tapping Glickman.

Meanwhile, Democrats were heartened by Glickman’s hire. They also are pleased that a range of lobbying groups have decided to hold off on hiring until after the election.

“It’s almost as if there has been a big timeout until after the election,” said Democratic lobbyist Paul Equale.

Nels Oslon, a head-hunter with the firm Korn-Ferry International, said it is “the normal thing” for lobbying groups to hedge their bets in the months before an election.

Still, for members of a Democratic Party that has been shut out of power entirely in Washington for two years, the hiring timeout is being viewed as a sign of new momentum on Capitol Hill.

“There is no question that the tide has risen quite a bit for Democrats,” Lewan said. “It shows that there is still a pulse out there.”