Conventional wisdom holds that with Democrats now in control on Capitol Hill, the loyal Republican stalwarts who run most of the nation’s trade associations might want to dust off their résumés. And some lobbyists are already making wagers that certain association CEOs might not last.
Just don’t try telling that to Jack Gerard. Gerard, a former mining industry lobbyist who took over the American Chemistry Council in 2005, is certainly not ashamed of his GOP ties. He helped pour $100,000 into the coffers of President Bush, elevating Gerard to pioneer status. And he supports former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s bid for the White House.
With Democrats running Congress and the White House up for grabs in 2008, Gerard, however, like other GOP trade association CEOs, is now stressing the bipartisan nature of his association and the need to work both parties.
“It’s important to always be bipartisan and not to drive your association or group into one political camp or the other,” said Gerard, whose ACC political action committee gave more than 80 percent to Republicans in the 2006 cycle. “Everybody in this town has a political stripe, but if you are honest and have integrity and are a reliable source of good information, then the political stripe goes away.”
Over the past several years of total GOP control, the biggest and most prominent lobbying associations have tapped mostly Republicans to run their organizations. Republicans on and off Capitol Hill even had a name for their effort to get loyal GOPers into such positions: the K Street Project.
That’s all changed. An unofficial watch list of GOP trade association chiefs whose jobs could be on the line include Mitch Bainwol, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.); the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s Kyle McSlarrow, a one-time Bush administration official; former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.); David Rehr, who heads the National Association of Broadcasters; and former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), who has the unenviable but extremely lucrative ($2 million a year) job of defending the pharmaceutical industry.
Many of these GOP trade association CEOs, of course, bristle at the idea that they can no longer be effective. “Hell no,” quipped former moderate Republican Rep. Jim Greenwood (Pa.) when asked if his Biotechnology Industry Organization would be better served by a Democrat. “When I visit my former colleagues who are Democrats, I feel just as warmly greeted as I do anywhere else,” he said. “I get lots of hugs and kisses, mostly from the women.”
And veteran association executives say the key to running a lobbying group is at least as much about managing the internal politics of the association and maintaining a strong relationship with its board and members than one’s political connections on Capitol Hill.
Former Kansas Rep. Dan Glickman, one of the few Democrats picked in recent years to run a major association, said that when he took over the Motion Picture Association of America from the legendary Jack Valenti, who died last month, Valenti told him not to listen to critics on Capitol Hill or K Street who said a Republican should have filled that slot.
“There was concern raised about my party affiliation in some circles,” Glickman recalled. “Valenti said, ‘Grin and bear it. It will pass.’” Since the beginning, Glickman said he has stressed that the MPAA’s issues — intellectual property rights and First Amendment protections — transcend party politics.
Tauzin, head of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, likes to talk up the fact that he’s been both a Democrat and a Republican in the House of Representatives.
But some Democrats say that’s a sore spot. One Democratic pharmaceutical company lobbyist said, “Democrats I know who run the committees will not take meetings with Tauzin.” That said, this lobbyist added, “I don’t think there’s a Democrat who could go to work for PhRMA who’d do any better.”
And Tauzin said that since he took his job at PhRMA in 2005, when he was still undergoing chemotherapy for stomach cancer, he has stressed bipartisanship. “We had been pushed into a Republican position over the Medicare debate, and it became a very partisan battle,” he said. “There was that legacy, and we’ve been working to overcome it. My message is: Let’s put all that ugly partisan stuff aside and let’s work for patients, who don’t sign into the hospital as Republicans or Democrats.”
Tauzin also is insulated by Democratic consultants and PhRMA employees such as Neal Comstock, a former aide to Al Gore.
Ditto for Rehr, who has hired Democrats, including Laurie Knight, a former aide to Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas), as senior vice president for government relations; Anne Brady, a former fundraiser for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to run the NAB’s political action committee; and Jamie Gillespie, a former aide to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), as a director of government relations.
And while Rehr has an uphill battle when it comes to wooing Capitol Hill Democrats, who consider him a GOP insider, Rehr has had more luck wooing NAB members. Recently, he successfully courted NBC/Universal back into the NAB membership fold, and the buzz from other member companies is that Rehr has brought a new level of energy to the association.
Former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who is now president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers, has cut a bipartisan reputation since joining the ACLI in 2003. One of his early moves, he said, was to promote Kim Dorgan, who is the wife of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), to chief lobbyist.
Keating, the grandson of a Democratic lawmaker from Illinois, had a Democratic state House and Senate while governor of the Sooner State. “So to me working with members of the opposite party is as natural as having breakfast cereal,” he said. In the four years at the ACLI, Keating said he has been a leading voice for redirecting more of the group’s PAC dollars to Democrats.
“From day one, we were not a part of the K Street Project,” he said, joking that a return to Democrats might spur an “M Street Project” now.
Another former governor, Marc Racicot, whose GOP credentials include a stint running the Republican National Committee, said that when the search committee for the American Insurance Association interviewed him, they stressed the nonpartisan nature of the job. Indeed, one of the insurance industry’s toughest critics is Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R), whose Mississippi home was destroyed in a hurricane. Lott has since taken up a fight for more coverage of hurricane damage.
Greenwood, too, sometimes finds his own party a pill. He favors stem-cell research and abortion rights and said he worked with Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) on health care bills while in Congress.
For his part, Tauzin said he expects the “natural phenomena” of more Democrats at the helm of lobbying associations, especially if Democrats retain control of the Congress and win the White House in 2008.
He’s not the only one saying that.
“When one party is in charge of all the bodies, and for a long period of time, there tends to be a leaning towards that one party,” said Charles Ingersoll, senior client partner in the association practice of search firm Korn Ferry International. Contracts for association CEOs typically run for three to five years, he said.
Eric Vautour, managing director of the Washington office of the search firm Russell Reynolds Associates, said if two of his searches this year offer any indication, associations are ready to hire from either party.
Vautour placed Democrat Doug Lowenstein as CEO of the new Private Equity Council and Republican Steve Anderson, the former chief executive of the National Restaurant Association, at the helm of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.
“They don’t change personnel based on elections,” Vautour said. “If someone happens to leave that was a big-time Republican, then [the association] might look more aggressively at big-time Democrats.” But, he said, “generally speaking if you’re looking at business-oriented groups, Republicans are more line with their positions. … How many Republicans do you see running labor unions?”