Forging a Connection
Under-40 Lobbyists Target Democratic Freshmen
After the 2006 midterm elections, Democratic lobbyists Paul Thornell and David Thomas found themselves in a predicament. Voters had just swept their party — and 41 new Democratic faces — into power. And they wanted to take full advantage of the situation.
But while their party now controlled Congress after 12 long years, that victory came at a cost — at least for Democratic lobbyists.
Interactions between Members and lobbyists had taken on a heightened level of scrutiny, some of these freshmen had just campaigned against the corrupting influence of K Street, and, as soon as the 110th Congress began, the House passed an immediate ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists.
“In light of the new ethics rules, we were wondering how do we meet all these new Democrats. And not just get to know them, but to be helpful as they transition to Congress,” explained Thomas, who became a lobbyist last year when he joined Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. As a loyal Democrat, he conceded, “it was a good problem to have.”
Thomas, 36, and Thornell, a 35-year-old lobbyist for Citigroup, hatched an idea to bring their K Street peers together with the new Members without the pressure of raising any money. They dubbed their group Majority Under 40, and so far this Congress they have met with eight freshmen and one freshly re-elected Member, Rep. Baron Hill (Ind.), who served from 1999 to 2005 and retained his previous seniority. This week they plan a meet-and-greet with Rep. Paul Hodes (N.H.) and next week they have one scheduled with freshman Rep. Keith Ellison (Minn.). Many more are in the pipeline.
Thornell explained that his K Street colleagues, especially those in the younger set, had “donor fatigue,” so the events were set up as informal meetings, never fundraisers. All are off-the-record, but discussions focus on the Members’ districts, their priority issues and their backgrounds. The meetings, which are muffin-and-bagel breakfasts in the firm or office of one of the lobbyists, attract about 15 to 30 participants. “We ran the traps with our lawyers,” Thomas said.
The first meeting, Thomas said, was with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (Ariz.), a 38-year-old small-business owner whom many on K Street see as a rising star in the party.
She’s just the kind of Member the Under 40 crowd wants in their corner. They also have met with Reps. Christopher Murphy (Conn.), John Sarbanes (Md.), Zack Space (Ohio), Ed Perlmutter (Colo.), Tim Walz (Minn.), John Yarmuth (Ky.) and Michael Arcuri (D-N.Y.).
“I can see Members like them being very successful over the long term,” Thomas said. “Hopefully we will, too, and we will have gotten to know them as freshmen. That’s what we’re hoping. It will be nice to get in on the ground floor.”
Of course, there are advantages for the Member as well. Getting to know a group of ambitious young Democratic lobbyists, most of whom represent corporate clients, obviously has some future fundraising potential. And it also gives the Members a potential pool of kitchen cabinet recruits.
The events also diversify the range of the lobbyists’ contacts. Thornell, who got to know Thomas while the two worked together during the Clinton administration in Vice President Al Gore’s legislative affairs shop, said the Under 40 meetings give him entree to Members he might otherwise not interact with in his role as a Citigroup lobbyist. “I may not come to know [Giffords] at all through my day-to-day work at Citi,” Thornell said.
Chris McCannell, 37, a former chief of staff to Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) who recently left the Hill, hosted a Majority Under 40 gathering for Arcuri at his new firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates. The get-togethers are important, McCannell said, because young downtown Democrats don’t have the same Congressional alumni networks that their GOP counterparts have crafted during their 12 years in the majority.
“For Republicans, there are a ton of people downtown who are [Chief Deputy Minority Whip] Eric Cantor [Va.] people or [Minority Whip] Roy Blunt [Mo.] people or [Minority Leader] John Boehner [Ohio] people,” he said referring to the House Republican leadership. “They have networks of downtown people.”
Older, more established K Street Democrats have their own contacts, too, but he said Majority Under 40 is helping fill a gap for 30-somethings in the party. “I think it’s a benefit because we’re the ones who have recently come off the Hill and they’re the ones who have recently come to town,” McCannell said. “We can grow together.”
Cookab Hashemi, a lobbyist for the YMCA of the USA, hosted a session with Perlmutter, whom she says she has known since Perlmutter served in the Colorado legislature. She said she got involved with Under 40 because she knew Thomas when the two worked together on Capitol Hill. Thomas was chief of staff to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), while Hashemi worked for Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.).
“This group of people, they’ve known each other for some time and moved around in the same circles,” Hashemi, 35, said. “We’re young, under 40 and we just have a lot of different ideas and want to get to know new Members. We’re all at the point in our careers where we’re taking that next step.”
Paul Brathwaite, 36, who served as executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, held an event for Space at the Podesta Group, the firm Brathwaite joined this year. Space won the seat of now-jailed ex-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who was convicted of taking bribes from lobbyists. Space will not accept campaign contributions from registered lobbyists, but Brathwaite said the freshman Democrat, like other Members, can draw on the political and policy experience of the Under 40 group, which includes not only lobbyists but public relations people and speechwriters.
“Some of the leading individuals in the lobbying arena have been doing this for 20, 30, 40 years, and they have relationships with Members that go that far back,” Brathwaite said. “The effort that we’ve undertaken is to start to make new relationships. This is an opportunity for us to meet them, be able to offer ourselves as resources.”
The Under 40 players like the respite from the fundraising scene, even if they expect some Members to hit them up later.
“A lot of stuff gets driven by money, and it’s nice that this doesn’t,” Brathwaite said.
James Bonham, a former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, joined the lobby firm Brown Rudnick after serving as media consultant on the campaign of now-Rep. Walz. He brought Walz in to meet with the other Under 40s. The group, he said, “certainly gives the Members the ability to speak about what’s important to them, so that downtown can understand what their priorities are.”
Bonham, who said he is “indeed under 40, and we’ll leave it at that,” said the freshman class, dubbed the “majority makers,” has considerable clout within the 232-member House Democratic Caucus and meets regularly with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Even though some of the freshman Democrats campaigned against Congressional Republicans’ coziness with special interests and have made ethics and lobbying reform a priority, the Under 40 lobbyists said most of the new Members are open to having a dialogue.
Brathwaite and several of the other lobbyists involved said they see the Under 40 network expanding beyond freshman Members, especially to young, up-and-coming Democrats in Congress such as second-term Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) or third-term Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio). “There’s a generation of leadership, of Members who are going to be the leadership in Congress over the next 10 to 15 to 20 years,” Brathwaite said. “It is to our benefit to get to know them and develop a relationship, and we hope we can provide the same kind of value to them.”