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Business Lobbyists Recount How CAFTA Was Won

A week before the vote on the Central American Free Trade Agreement, several business groups passed the hat and raised almost $300,000 for an all-out, last-minute grass-roots effort. The result was that more than 18,000 calls from voters were patched through to a select group of conflicted Members.

“The business community got together and decided that all these individual ‘grass tops’ efforts were nice, but the left was doing massive grass-roots, and we had to counteract it,” said Ralph Hellmann, senior vice president of government relations for the Information Technology Industry Council, whose industry contributed $100,000 for the effort.

All the way up until late Wednesday night — the night of the vote — his group and its allies were fine-tuning where to direct the grass-roots callers. And he said a final tally showed that more than 18,000 calls reached about 70 offices, mostly Republican.

In addition to the last-ditch efforts by President Bush and House leaders in the Capitol during the vote, a number of lobbyists helped provide enough background noise, strategic counsel and political cover to push CAFTA to victory.

Christopher Wenk, director of international trade policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said his group takes credit for a small portion of the last-minute grass-roots effort, primarily targeting Hispanic voters.

“We were activating everybody: our member companies, state affiliates. [NAM President John] Engler was making phone calls and lobbying visits, even leading up to the vote,” Wenk said.

The effort, participants say, tapped the vendor OnPoint, among others, to help pull together the phone calls by gathering lists from pro-business, conservative and Hispanic groups.

Early last week, lobbyists focused on about 40 Members whose votes were up for grabs, then continued to refine their targets as the week progressed. Those Members included Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), Randy Kuhl (R-N.Y.) and Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.).

“Our job was to make sure that these Members heard from the business leaders in their states,” said Bill Miller, political director and vice president for Congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It was perhaps fitting that on the night of the vote, many of the lobbyists, including Hellmann and Wenk, camped out in Room 326 of the Capitol — part of Blunt’s suite of offices — which had been the location, in the weeks leading up to the vote, of many meetings between the Whip operation and outside lobbyists.

Lobbyists who were there on the night of the vote described it as a war room atmosphere, packed with more than 30 lobbyists who watched C-SPAN and devised last-minute strategies.

In the months leading up to the vote, a small group, known as a steering committee, would meet every week in Blunt’s office to strategize and gather intelligence about where Members stood on the issue. Those meetings generally took place mid-morning on Mondays. The lobbyists who attended included Hellmann, Wenk, Kirsten Chadwick, the lead vote counter for Republican Members and her Democratic counterpart, Steven Champlin of the Duberstein Group.

Even though the vote has been won, lobbyists for big business haven’t packed up their belongings quite yet. In fact, several lobbyists say they are already ramping up a thank-you campaign to Members who stuck with the pro-CAFTA side.

“These 15 Democrats were very brave,” said Wenk. “We are going to be going all out to thank the people that voted yes.

“I’m working on putting some radio spots together for certain Members,” Wenk said. Part of NAM’s August effort includes producing and buying ads in districts where Members voted yes as well as sending every “yes” voter a thank you letter.

“There are probably upwards of 35 to 40 Members that we need to really thank, that need some cover and backing in their districts,” Wenk added.

The Chamber, Miller said, is in the process of putting together in-district events as well as press statements hailing Members who voted for CAFTA.

“We have a responsibility if we’re going to go in and lobby on trade bills, that after they’re over, we need to go in and make sure Members are supported from the public relations perspective,” he said.

Of course, business groups aren’t the only ones trying to repay supporters and take a dig at those who voted the other way.

Alan Tonelson, senior fellow at the U.S. Business and Industry Council, said his anti-CAFTA group plans to get the word out in the districts of the 27 Republicans who voted against the agreement.

“Given the pressure they were under, that was a very brave performance by them,” Tonelson said. “As we did after the Senate CAFTA vote, we’re going to send letters to the editor.”

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