Even as Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has intensified his attacks on Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) for her ties to K Street, he has been reaching out to lobbyists to provide volunteer manpower in early primary states.
Obama has made no secret of his disdain for lobbyists’ role in the political process. He has refused to accept their campaign checks for his presidential bid and is trying to use the issue to help close the gap with frontrunning Clinton by blasting what he calls her reliance on special-interest money.
But this week the Obama campaign e-mailed the members of each of its 42 policy committees — a roster of hundreds of professionals, academics and lobbyists helping Obama formulate his positions — and asked them to spend at least a week in the states hosting the first contests of the nomination fight.
“If you do indicate interest in working in an early state, you will be contacted by campaign staff in the appropriate state to work out the schedule and logistical details of your visit,” a memo sent to policy committee members this week read. The memo linked to a sign -up form on the Obama campaign Web site that promises “a challenging and thrilling experience that you’ll never forget.”
The bulk of the policy committee members appear to hail from corporations, investment houses, think tanks and universities. But registered federal lobbyists are represented as well.
On the technology/media/telecom committee, for example, lobbyists make up at least 23 of the 159 members.
Among those two dozen lobbyists: Lawrence Walke of the National Association of Broadcasters, Joel Wiginton of Sony, Paul Brown of BKSH & Associates and Edward An of Time Warner.
Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said early-state volunteers are performing tough work for no pay because they are committed to the campaign — not to try to reap inside influence with the candidate.
“We’re building the largest grass-roots campaign in the history of presidential politics and encouraging supporters who don’t live in the early states to provide a boost to our organizational efforts on the ground,” he said. “We welcome the thousands of volunteers from across the country who are giving up their time to drive shuttles, distribute literature and drive 4x8s into the ground for nothing in return but the opportunity to change our politics.”
Nevertheless, several lobbyists supporting Obama said his criticism of their role in the process is wearing thin. Some said they were irked that a campaign that has maligned lobbyists for political gain is now asking them to volunteer.
“If you’re taking the position that lobbyists are not a part of your campaign and you won’t accept their money, it’s a little disingenuous to turn around and basically ask them for in kind support by volunteering,” one lobbyist backing Obama said on the condition of anonymity.
FEC guidelines allow lobbyists or anyone else to volunteer with a campaign — without categorizing that time as an ‘in kind’ contribution — as long as they are not reimbursed by their employer.
The call for lobbyists, among others, to roll up their sleeves in the early contests came as Obama launched a fresh attack at Clinton for raising money from the K Street crowd.
Early Tuesday morning, Obama e-mailed his supporters, exhorting them to help him close a $3 million cash-on-hand advantage Clinton has opened up for their primary showdown.
“Hillary Clinton aggressively seeks money from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. She’s even said that these lobbyists represent real Americans. She’s wrong,” the e-mail read. “I think it’s time to turn the page on that kind of politics, and that’s why I have not accepted a dime from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs in this race …
“Washington lobbyists have chosen their candidate and are determined to provide her with an overwhelming advantage. But you can even up this contest.”
LaBolt said there is no inconsistency in the campaign’s treatment of lobbyists. Obama, he said, has been clear that lobbyists are not inherently bad; rather, the problem with them is that they enjoy outsized influence in the political process through the campaign money they contribute. Having those lobbyists work side by side with other volunteers in early states ensures they are operating on an even playing field, LaBolt said.
But not all lobbyists are buying that explanation.
Gigi Sohn, an Obama supporter and lobbyist for Public Knowledge — a nonprofit that advocates for digital consumer rights — called the Senator’s position on lobbyists “absurd.”
“The loopholes in this anti-lobbyist campaign are big enough to drive a truck through,” she said. “It’s a superficial distinction and I don’t like being caught up in it.”
Sohn said though she only spends a “minuscule” amount of time actually lobbying, she registered as a lobbyist for the first time this year in an abundance of caution brought about by the new ethics rules.
The change in her status didn’t go unnoticed by the Obama campaign, which, over her objections, returned a $250 check she wrote it in March, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Speaking privately, another lobbyist supporting Obama said the distinction between campaign contributions and volunteer work the campaign is drawing makes sense. “When you’re a registered lobbyist bringing a corporate PAC check with you to an event, there’s a connection between money and politics. There’s a big difference between that and slapping on a pair of jeans and a sweater and a campaign button and going door to door in Iowa to hand out campaign literature,” the lobbyist said.
Still, he said, Obama should strive to explain that nuance on the campaign trail. “He needs to let people know he’s not afraid of lobbyists. He has friends who are lobbyists, and his office gets lobbied, but that doesn’t drive him away from his core principles. He needs to make that case more affirmatively.”