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Pro-Social Security Reform Group Hires Stenholm

For months, talking heads have been saying that President Bush needs Democrats to support his Social Security plan. Now he has a big one — but unfortunately for the president, he’s no longer in Congress.

Charlie Stenholm, a 26-year House veteran who became a lobbyist for the firm Olsson, Frank and Weeda after losing his seat in November, has inked a deal with For Our Grandchildren, one of several leading advocacy groups touting the president’s overhaul of the federal retirement program.

Stenholm, a moderate-to-conservative “yellow dog” Democrat from West Texas, lost his seat in the controversial Texas redistricting plan engineered by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas). He took with him a record as a mediator between the parties on tough issues and as a Democratic voice for reforming Social Security — both qualities in short supply in the 109th Congress.

A federal ban prevents Stenholm from directly trying to influence Members of Congress or their staff for a year after leaving the Hill. But For Our Grandchildren will make sure that Stenholm stays on the right side of the law, said James Hamilton, the organization’s executive director.

Hamilton, himself a veteran of Stenholm’s staff, said the former Congressman will be talking to his old colleagues about the broad principles of personal Social Security accounts, rather than specific legislation.

But that restriction could prove tricky given he authored a Social Security reform bill now before the House.

In 1998, Stenholm introduced a bill with Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) that would have carved out personal accounts from the current Social Security program. But the bill never gathered enough momentum to pass.

Now, with Social Security reform topping the president’s domestic agenda, the bill has been given new life. Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.) is the new Democratic co-sponsor.

Stenholm said last week that he understood his work with For Our Grandchildren would focus on media outreach. He said he plans to speak publicly about the merits of his old bill.

“I happen to believe Kolbe-Boyd is a good bill. What I will do [by talking to reporters] is maybe cause them to follow Kolbe-Boyd and report on what their bill does and says,” he said. “It’s the only place to start.”

Hamilton said that despite his old boss’s history with the bill, he expects when Stenholm meets with Members of Congress, he’ll stop short of asking them to support it.

“I know that clearly he authored it, but in terms of what he’ll be doing for us, he’ll be working to nudge people to support personal retirement accounts,” he said. “What he does on his own time is up to him. I know the House [ethics committee] would really be concerned if he were to do lobbying.”

In his work for FOG, Stenholm will be aligned with another old colleague, former Rep. Tim Penny (D-Minn.), who chairs For Our Grandchildren’s advisory council. A fiscal conservative, Penny ran an unsuccessful third-party candidacy for governor of Minnesota in 2002.

Penny, who earned a mention in the State of the Union speech last week for advocating parts of the president’s approach, said while the organization won’t endorse a specific piece of legislation, Stenholm’s bill “stands as an example of how it could be done.”

“He’s welcome to talk about his own bill,” Penny said of Stenholm. “But our general purpose as an organization is to talk about the need for reform, and that will be the primary emphasis we will stick with.”

Penny added that, along with Stenholm, he will begin making rounds next week at trade associations representing rural populations to gauge their interest in reform and possibly invite the former Members to speak to conferences on the topic.

The two will also be shopping editorials to regional papers and seeking bookings on regional radio talk shows.

For Our Grandchildren, a nonprofit backed by window and door manufacturer Richard Wendt, already employs a small stable of advocates. But Stenholm is one of the first outside hires for the group.

In fact, Stenholm has become one of the few consultants from a private lobbying firm to be retained to work on either side of the Social Security debate. While the potential amount at stake in a reform runs into the trillions of dollars, corporate interests so far have focused on forming coalitions and funding advertising campaigns rather than hiring K Street lobbyists to knock on doors in the Capitol complex.

Hamilton declined to discuss Stenholm’s compensation, saying only that it was “nominal” and that the former Congressman would be working on the issue two or three days a month.

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