K St.’s ‘Max Out’ Crowd
Top 20 Lobbyists Meted Out Nearly $2M So Far
The 20 top K Street donors this election cycle have handed federal candidates nearly $1.8 million in personal cash. The majority of that money, $1.3 million, has gone to help Democrats as the party in charge of Capitol Hill looks to expand its majority.
But while lobbyists have a reputation for delivering large sums of money to Members in return for insider status, the reality is that only an elite segment of the industry actually doles out the six-figure legal maximum in contributions.
Those who do it are often already at the top of their profession and say they get surprisingly little business bang for those considerable bucks. Still, they do get something of value: name recognition among their party’s leadership and rank-and-file, scoring them coveted access to Members.
“I get an empty wallet, that’s what I get out of it,” quipped lobbyist Fred Graefe, who as of April 28 had donated more than $101,000 for the two-year election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data complied by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The top 20 list includes only hired guns on K Street and does not include in-house lobbyists for corporations or trade associations.
“The role of lobbyists’ giving is very much misunderstood,” said Bert Carp, a partner at Williams & Jensen who had given nearly $80,000 by the end of last month.
“The common wisdom about how this game works is not correct. There is not some relationship between giving and laws. If there were, everyone would be giving what I’m giving.
“I basically contribute because the Democratic Party’s been very, very good to me, and I contribute largely because I’m a Democrat,” he added.
Charles Brain, a Democratic lobbyist who runs his own firm, Capitol Hill Strategies, said he gives to people with whom he has cultivated personal relationships over the years when he was a staffer and legislative liaison in the Clinton White House. “It’s a way of still trying to advance what you believe in and help your friends,” he said.
Richard Ladd of Robison International gave 96 percent of his nearly $95,000 to Republicans and said his reasons for giving are simple. “I give because people need money to run for office,” he said. “I believe in the process.”
The personal, after-tax contributions are just a small portion of the money that top donor lobbyists help funnel to candidates. Many of these high-dollar contributors host fundraisers to get their colleagues and friends to hand out cash, too.
Democratic lobbyist Julie Domenick, who runs Multiple Strategies, said that last year she hosted 35 fundraisers at her Capitol Hill home near the Hart Senate Office Building and is on track to do that many this year.
“I just made a commitment this Congress to do that because I really thought it was important for Democrats to increase their majority in the House and Senate,” she said.
She added that her personal giving and event-hosting is not aimed at expanding her lobbying business.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt,” she said. “But when you open your home — it is my home, I live here — there’s a personal commitment to Democrats that goes beyond any business incentive. I’ve really kept my client base to five, so it’s not like I’m doing this to get more business.”
Husband and wife lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta have hosted numerous fundraisers at their Woodley Park home. Tony Podesta, who owns the Podesta Group, said that the duo have helped lure more than $2.1 million to Democratic coffers this cycle.
His wife, founder of Heather Podesta + Partners, called this a “critical election cycle” with momentum on the side of Democrats.
Even so, there’s only so much each lobbyist can give — this year the max is $108,200, of which $42,700 can be given to candidates and $65,500 to political action committees and party committees.
Heather Podesta said she is getting dangerously close to the limit with very little left to give to either candidates or PACs, as is her husband. “Whoever cries the loudest” will get her remaining allotment, she said. “I do have favorites.”
While Heather Podesta said she has been building up to this high-dollar giving, Larry O’Brien, a founder of the OB-C Group, has been a longtime top donor. Through April, election records show he has contributed $100,900, but he said he’s hit the limit since then.
“It’s almost liberating in a way,” he said of maxing out. “I had the conscious thought early on that I would hold some back because there will be cries of pain.” But, he said, “it’s hard to do. There are so many demands.”
Some top donors focus their giving on one chamber. Jeffrey Peck, a partner at Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart, worked in the Senate and said Senate Democrats “are my kind of my people. “ Plus, he said, “I love Chuck Schumer,” chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Other lobbyists say they would be politically active even if they left K Street.
Gerald Cassidy, who started Cassidy & Associates more than 30 years ago, said he has no plans to retire, but if he did, he would continue to give out hefty campaign donations.
“I do it because I’m very interested in politics and in the direction of the country,” said Cassidy, who gave 100 percent of his almost $90,000 to Democrats.
While most of the high-dollar K Street contributors, like Cassidy, give out of loyalty to one political party, some lobbyists sprinkle a little cash to the other side of the aisle.
The top donor so far at nearly $107,000, Democrat Steve Elmendorf of Elmendorf Strategies said Democrats will get all his political donations. “I never have and never will,” he said of giving to GOPers.
But Graefe doled out 11 percent of his total to Republicans. “I’m from Iowa, so I give to Chuck Grassley,” he said of the Republican Senator from the Hawkeye State. He also cut checks to House Minority Leader John Boehner and other Ohio Republicans.
Williams & Jensen’s David Franasiak has contributed 9 percent of his total to Democrats. “I think that people ought to be involved in the political process,” he said. “I’m fortunate enough that I can give money. Other people who can’t afford it should give their time to volunteer.”
The most bipartisan donor in the top 20 is Mark Magliocchetti of the PMA Group, an appropriations and defense lobby shop. Magliocchetti, the son of firm founder Paul Magliocchetti, gave 61 percent of his contributions to Democrats and 39 percent to the GOP. The appropriations sector has long been viewed as bipartisan.
Even Democrat Tony Podesta gave a little to the other side. He made a $500 contribution to Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.).
“Just don’t tell Chris Van Hollen I did that,” Podesta said, referring to the Maryland Representative and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “I’ve been reasonably loyal.”