City Hall on the Potomac

Posted April 18, 2008 at 6:08pm

The Big Apple is 200 miles to the north, but for the employees who work in the city’s sleek Washington office, they might as well be in Manhattan.

Phones ring, voices are loud, the energy is tangible. The office is set up bullpen-style, with no walls or private offices, and a Bloomberg Terminal stands at the center desk. A clock counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds left in the administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg (I).

“We are an extension of City Hall,” said Lindsey Ellenbogen, Bloomberg’s spokeswoman in D.C.

“We are keenly aware of the amount of time we have to get our work done,” she adds, walking past the blinking clock, observing every passing New York minute.

Scores of other municipalities employ lobbyists to plot earmark strategies and keep watch over key committees. But only New York, Chicago and Los Angeles operate their own Washington offices — all out of the same Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest building — with city employees on the payroll.

“The fact that I’m here as an employee of the city of Chicago affects how the city is viewed in a positive way,” said Frank Kruesi, Chicago’s director of intergovernmental affairs and a longtime aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley (D). “Because I work for the city, I’m not a hired gun, I’m a public servant. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s big.”

Chicago and Los Angeles have neighboring offices on the fourth floor of the stately office building that also houses the National League of Cities. New York is just one floor below.

New York’s D.C. office has seven employees, including a former sergeant in the New York City Police Department, John Ingoldsby, and is led by Bill Daly, a Connecticut native who has served four New York mayors, starting with Ed Koch, since he joined the office in 1986.

The New York staffers promote Bloomberg’s pet causes — public safety and infrastructure — on Capitol Hill, lobby the city’s Washington delegation on issues such as homeland security and transportation, and keep City Hall informed of Beltway events. They are New York’s eyes and ears — and often its voice — in Washington, D.C.

The intelligence is reciprocal.

Bloomberg hired Kevin Sheekey, a former D.C. staffer for the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) to serve as his top political strategist in New York, suggesting the two-term mayor values keen Washington knowledge from his staffers.

Like Daly, Los Angeles’ top lobbyist, Jim Seeley, has weathered five city bosses, including current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D). And he’s seen a lot of changes since joining L.A.’s D.C. office in 1977.

“There’s more grants, more regulations, more federal jurisdiction,” Seeley said from his sprawling office. “The federal government has gotten into more things, and to make things work, you’ve got to tell your story.”

Mayors Bloomberg, Daley and Villaraigosa have come together on a handful of issues, such as climate change and risk-based homeland security funding.

More recently, the cities have lobbied their Members on legislation to prevent a housing foreclosure crisis. The Senate bill would dole out $4 billion to recover foreclosed homes, but cities want to make sure that money goes directly to them instead of to the states, which is how the bill is currently written.

The cities also partner with their state offices to lobby for federal grants. Seeley noted that his office joins with the California office, which houses Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) staff, “all the time” to work the Hill.

“On the margin we try to get a leg up for the city of Los Angeles, [but] you have a lot more clout with the state,” Seeley said.

The Second City’s Washington office is slightly smaller than Los Angeles’ and far less glamorous than New York’s, which was renovated last year.

The walls are decorated with child-rendered paintings of Chicago’s famed skyline, and there are more than a few banners for the Chicago White Sox — the mayor’s beloved baseball team — scattered throughout the space.

Chicago may be the smallest of the three cities, but Daley is the larger-than-life mayor who has served 19 years and is the son of its most famous leader, Richard J. Daley, who ruled the city from 1955 to 1976.

With his hands-on approach to governing, the current Mayor Daley relies on his Washington staff to push priorities like the expansion of O’Hare Airport and federal funding for urban parks.

Kruesi, who now leads five city employees in the Washington office, is a longtime Daley aide who has worked with the mayor since his days as a state legislator.

Kruesi said the mayor’s formidable presence in Chicago’s City Hall, translates well to Washington, where his occasional visits command the same respect.

“The mayor is recognized here as the dean of mayors in the country,” Kruesi said. “The things that he pushes deserve serious consideration.”

Villaraigosa has studied the Chicagoan’s moves since taking office in 2005, trying to emulate Daley’s Washington approach by appealing to his delegation and using the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pump up L.A.’s profile.

Villaraigosa even brought a “Taste of Southern California” to Capitol Hill, bringing the local flavors of his hometown to Washington in the same way that Daley does with his biannual “Taste of Chicago” party, flying in deep-dish pizzas, ribs and cheesecakes for impressionable Hill staffers.

For a city that takes its treats and its traditions seriously, the Chicago staff only half-jokingly considered L.A.’s move a hostile breach of food diplomacy.

“We’re trying to get an advantage over the others, sure,” Seeley said with a smirk. “Los Angeles is 2,000 miles away. We need to have a presence here.”

New York hasn’t shipped in any Junior’s cheesecakes, but the office did host members of the U.S. Senate Press Secretaries Association during its annual trip north, which included a tour of City Hall and a few minutes with the top boss.

“They got to see the best mayor,” Ellenbogen said with typical New York bravado.