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Saving Vulnerable Freshmen

At a cost of $10,000 per person for this election cycle, it may not be the priciest club for a Washington, D.C., lobbyist. But the two dozen members of a new fundraising clique say their collective effort will pack quite a punch for their party’s most vulnerable House Members.

The group of Democratic lobbyists, known as Blueprint for America, was created earlier this year. Each lobbyist had to pledge to give at least $5,000 per year, mostly of their personal, after-tax money, to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” members, those in the greatest jeopardy of losing their seats in 2008. With 25 members, Blueprint organizers say their individual checks — $500 here and $1,000 there — will add up to a $250,000 commitment.

“The goal was to find a way to give younger Democrats an opportunity to host and participate in fundraisers, most of it with personal money, for a lower dollar amount,” said Matthew Berzok, a lobbyist at Ryan Phillips Utrecht & MacKinnon, who has helped organize the fundraisers.

So far, Blueprint has held five fundraisers at the DCCC offices, benefiting the coffers of Democratic Reps. Heath Shuler (N.C.), Brad Ellsworth (Ind.), Joe Courtney (Conn.), Patrick Murphy (Pa.) and Jason Altmire (Pa.).

“All of us are going to be out there and contributing, but if we do this in a systematic way, we can be a lot more effective in helping the Members who need it the most,” said David Thomas, a lobbyist with Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “When you group 20 or 25 people, rather than just my random $500 check, there is a much larger sum.”

Thomas and some of the other Blueprint members also belong to a group with a similar theme — that does no fundraising — called Majority Under 40, a collection of Democratic lobbyists who are reaching out to build ties with freshman Democrats through informal meet-and-greets.

“What I like about [Blueprint] is twofold,” Thomas said. “It’s a good way for me to support the Frontline Democrats, the people who are going to be in the tough races next year. It’s also a great network opportunity for me amongst my peers. Most of the people who are in Blueprint are either lobbyists at firms or corporate lobbyists who are my peers.”

Other members include Gordon Taylor and Andy Rosenberg of Ogilvy Government Relations; Amgen lobbyist Chaka Burgess; Melissa Maxfield of Comcast; the Alpine Group’s Courtney Johnson; Andy Dodson of the Bockorny Group; Johnston & Associates’ Eric Tober; and Gwen Mellor with Hogan & Hartson.

Francine Friedman, a counsel in Hunton & Williams’ lobby practice, said she focuses mainly on tax issues, which puts her in regular contact with members of the Ways and Means Committee. But not freshmen, who typically don’t have enough seniority to rate a seat on that that committee. The Blueprint events give her entree to a new crop of Members.

“It’s your tithing,” Friedman said of the $10,000 minimum for the two-year cycle. “This is more than I would normally give, because I’m junior, to Members I wouldn’t necessarily give to for work purposes. I’ve never had occasion to lobby any of the [freshman] Members.”

But, Friedman said, “at the end of the day, if we don’t have the majority, then the things I want to get done on a personal level won’t get done. We all agreed, no matter whether you were available or not to go to a specific fundraiser, you were going to support these candidates. You agree to give no matter what.”

For many of the Blueprint donors like Friedman, the $10,000 commitment is in addition to donations they plan to make to more senior Members, those in leadership positions or who sit on key committees for the lobbyists’ business portfolios. There’s a self-interest in giving to the vulnerable Democrats, too, of course.

“We’re going to be around for a while,” Berzok said. “The people we’re supporting now are going to be on those committees. Obviously the shift in power has given Democrats opportunities that hadn’t existed in the past 12 years, it’s in this group’s best interest to keep them in power.”

Another Blueprint member, Marcus Mason, a lobbyist with the Madison Group, said he didn’t mind parting with the cash. “It’s a burden worth carrying to maintain the majority,” he said. “It takes a lot to come to Congress, and it takes a lot to stay here,” he added. “I think it gives the pool of contributors a greater impact, and it always gives the frontline members a greater degree of certainty to know they have this money coming in.”

The events themselves, added Berzok, 36, take a less formal tack than most and are mainly about getting to know the vulnerable Members of Congress. “We’re not peppering them with questions about what’s going to be on the floor this week or what’s going on with that appropriations bill,” he said.

The group, whose members are mostly in their 30s, might not be that different age-wise, but members say Blueprint represents a real cross-section of the lobbying community in other ways.

“One of the things that’s important and different from a lot of other groups is the diversity of this group,” said Paul Thornell, a lobbyist at Citigroup who is black. “There are women, Asians, African-Americans. So many things in town often times end up very homogeneous, but this is actually something that has brought together all kinds of people.”

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