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K Street Pants Over Potential Hot Recruits From Hill

Call it K Street’s holiday shopping list. Based on an informal survey of 42 lobbyists and headhunters, Roll Call has culled a list of 13 names the city’s lobby shops would love to hire.

Two caveats: This is an informal list and is not at all meant to be exhaustive. And it consciously tries to avoid venerable Hill staffers everyone would like to hire, but who have made it clear they are never leaving the Hill — at least in our lifetime.

It does try to take into account the fact that technical knowledge and a powerful boss do not (necessarily) a good lobbyist make. To do well on K Street, where people succeed loudly but tend to fail quietly, lobbyists need what one veteran Democratic operative called “pizazz,” a quality that is distinct from personality.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys come out and do this without being a great personality,” the Democratic lobbyist said. “They just had the touch.”

There’s lots of things that go with the touch, notes John Raffaelli, a former tax and trade staffer for now-deceased Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas), who started his own lobby shop on Jan 1.

These include, he says, “the ability to say ‘no’ and make you believe they really hated to have to say ‘no’ to you.

“Some people clearly enjoy telling you ‘no,’” added Raffaelli, “and that really pisses you off. And they don’t come to mind as the kind of people you want to work with every day.”

Such is the financial investment in new K Street “talent,” a word lobbyists are fond of attaching to their profession, that some of the most desirable Hill prospects are those who are guaranteed quantities because they already have worked downtown — people like former Timmons and Co. lobbyist Dan Turton, former Verizon lobbyist Gregg Rothschild and former DaimlerChrysler lobbyist Dennis Fitzgibbons.

“The guys who K Street are looking for on the Hill are the guys who left K Street to go back to the Hill after the election,” Doug Bennett, another Timmons alumnus who is now Liberty Mutual’s Washington, D.C., lobbyist, said.

As to which of the dozens of highly touted Hill staffers actually can be persuaded to leave, Raffaelli’s firm, Capitol Counsel, follows the conventional downtown dictum: “Young people with mortgages and children. That’s the perfect combination.”

And yet, apparently no amount of money can persuade some staffers to leave, in part because of ideological convictions, in part because the thrill of the Hill — at its best — can never be duplicated downtown. “It’s not even close,” OB-C Group lobbyist Charlie Mellody, who spent 10 years working for former Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), said. “It’s like playing for the Yankees and going to a Yankees game.”

Herewith the candidates on our admittedly subjective list:

• Paul Bock, 43, has spent nearly 11 years as chief of staff to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.). “He’s a classic example of somebody whose profile isn’t that significant but the type of person they are, the ability to do the work they do, puts them in a different sphere,” said one corporate lobbyist.

He also has that sought-after private-sector experience, working at Mayer Brown before heading to the the Hill. He also coordinates the weekly Friday morning Democratic chiefs of staff meeting, contacts lobbyists say would be invaluable.

• Brian Gaston, 46, chief of staff to House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), is just months away from hitting 25 years of service on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists say they find Gaston’s deep experience among Republican leadership a plus, despite the fact that Democrats are running the show. “He’s beloved by industry. He does more trips and takes more meetings than anybody,” one Republican lobbyist said.

He has handled tax, trade and financial services — all big issues for big business — and was Blunt’s policy director before becoming chief of staff almost four years ago. Before that he worked for former Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and now-Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

• John Michael Gonzalez, 43, apparently thrives in the whirlwind environment of working for Members in tough districts. Gonzalez joined then-Rep. Chris Bell (D-Texas) as chief of staff in 2002. When Bell was swept from Congress during the controversial mid-decade redistricting of the Lone Star State, Gonzalez jumped to join then-freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.).

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire,” Gonzalez said, referring to the heated opposition Bean faced in her first term, initially from labor unions angry over her vote in favor of Central American Free Trade Agreement, and then a well-financed Republican challenger. Said one GOP lobbyist: “He is somebody who is not partisan, who gets along with folks and also has a good, solid understanding of how the legislative sausage gets made.”

• Rohit Kumar, 33, works for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and has what K Street lobbyists want in a Republican: strong Senate ties and substantive policy experience.

“He’s considered one of those guys who knows everything,” one Republican lobbyist said. “And he’s always open to talking to the business community. That means a lot.”

Prior to McConnell, Kumar was a senior counsel to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and spent a year with now-retiring Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) before that.

• Brett Loper, 34, the minority staff director of the Ways and Means Committee, “is a rock star,” one Republican lobbyist said. “He’s the mixture of policy and politics. Anybody downtown would want to recruit him.”

Loper took his current job in January. Before that he was Ways and Means ranking member Jim McCrery’s (R-La.) personal office chief of staff and prior to that worked for then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) as deputy chief of staff. He also did a stint in the Office of Management and Budget. And he has a touch of K Street experience: two short stints with the Associated General Contractors and Fannie Mae.

• Gina Mahony, 38, is the rare Hill staffer who is actually a D.C. native. What makes the senior policy adviser to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) appealing to K Street, though, is her long track record of working for moderate, pro-business Democrats. In her almost 11 years on the Hill, Mahony has worked for then-Reps. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.), Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) and Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).

Lobbyists of both parties say she’s a straight shooter. Said one GOP lobbyist: “She can see the big picture and doesn’t get too focused on the partisan stuff and wants to accomplish stuff.”

• Jim Messina, 38, is the chief of staff to Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who leads the Senate Finance Committee. Messina has spent the past 14 years enmeshed in politics, starting with the mayoral campaign for Missoula, Mont., Mayor Daniel Kemmis. He’s also worked in the House, as chief of staff to Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), and he spent two years as chief of staff to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

• John O’Neill Jr., 36, the policy director and counsel in the Senate Whip operation under Lott, will be sought after no matter his party affiliation. In an environment when even Republican lobbyists are clamoring for Democrats, O’Neill could have his pick of opportunities, K Street sources said.

Before joining Lott’s operation, O’Neill was tax and pension counsel at the Senate Finance Committee under then-Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). And he’s had private-sector experience as a lawyer at Davis & Harman.

• Gregg Rothschild, 42, is chief counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. And he hits that lobbyist trifecta of working in both chambers — seven years working for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), where he ended up as his legislative director — and in the private sector, where he was the senior Democratic lobbyist at Verizon from 2005 to 2006.

“He fits the model,” said one Democratic lobbyist. “He’s smart, he would be very good at handling clients, very strategic. He’s actually been a lobbyist. All those things make him perfect.”

• Liz Sears Smith, 43, chief of staff to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), “has been around and has tons more relationships” than many of her leadership staffer peers, said one high-profile Democratic lobbyist. “She gets it, knows how the system works.”

Another Democratic lobbyist said Smith would be a hot hire because she works for Emanuel, who as this lobbyist put it “has the longest future of any leader.”

• Russ Sullivan, 46, the staff director of the Senate Finance Committee, has that double quality that often makes for a fine lobbyist. “He’s a god in the staff world,” noted one longtime Democratic lobbyist, “but at the same time, he’s almost a peer with Members.”

Sullivan’s name often is the first dropped when lobbyists reveal their wish lists. “But he’s also made enemies over the years,” added another Democratic lobbyist, who said he would love to recruit Sullivan. “You have to in those jobs sometimes.”

• Dan Turton, 40, the chief of staff on the House Rules Committee, knows parliamentary procedure cold. And he’s been out in the private sector as a lobbyist as well, spending three years at Timmons and Co. Before joining Timmons, he spent 13 years with then House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), where he was floor director. “Lobbying has very little to do with what you know,” Turton said. “It’s how you communicate and build relationships.”

• Yelberton Watkins, 43, has spent his entire Congressional career with South Carolina Democratic Rep. James Clyburn, now the Majority Whip. Watkins, who grew up in Clyburn’s district, joined his office in 1993 after graduating from law school and became chief of staff one year later. If the right offer came along, one Democratic lobbyist who runs his own firm said, “he’d leave in a heartbeat.”

Kate Ackley and Tory Newmyer contributed to this report.