Skip to content

McCain’s Battered Lobbyists

Public and Private Realties Differ

In the midst of a mini-purge of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) K Street-connected campaign staff and the release of guidelines for lobbyists who advise his presidential effort, the McCain campaign quietly reached out to the same crowd it was distancing itself from publicly.

At 4 p.m. Monday, campaign finance chair Susan Nelson convened a conference call with lobbyist supporters and fundraisers to assuage their bruised egos and pass along positive polling data, according to two participants in the session.

“I think they were trying to make the point that this is not an attack on lobbying or any of the people on the campaign,” said one participant in the conference call, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They want to move forward. My sense is everyone gets the joke.”

The joke is that in this presidential campaign, lobbyists have become everybody’s favorite punching bag.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has long banned contributions from federal lobbyists. And the latest shot at K Street was the McCain campaign’s “Conflict Policy,” which prohibits anyone paid to work for the campaign from being a registered lobbyist or foreign agent. Unpaid volunteers are required to fill out a form listing their clients, and may not be part of a policy committee that handles issues in which those clients may have an interest.

It also requires that any volunteers who lobby must refrain from lobbying McCain’s personal and committee offices until their volunteer work is finished.

Not every lobbyist, of course, has a sense of humor, especially when it concerns their livelihood. Or perhaps the constant drone of criticism is taking its toll.

“It’s just absurd,” said one longtime lobbyist and McCain supporter, of the new rules. “It’s clearly a freedom of speech to support whoever you want to who is running for president. As long as there is full disclosure, there shouldn’t be any challenges anywhere.”

Added a K Street McCain fundraiser: “I think what is making some people at least unhappy is this implicit attack on lobbyists as a class, as if lobbyists are inherently bad or inherently evil. Downtown has had difficulty kind of getting enthusiastic about McCain because there’s this long history of kind of castigating the lobbying community while hanging around the lobbyists.”

But most lobbyists on the McCain team were taking it in stride.

“It’s a lousy environment to be a lobbyist,” conceded one K Street source who supports McCain. “But I don’t think there’s anyone feeling bitter or upset about this decision the campaign’s made. It’s just part of the politics of this election.”

Despite the brouhaha on K Street, the campaign is moving forward on June 9 with its first major Washington, D.C., fundraiser since the rules went into effect.

A formal invite has not yet gone out, but the event will be on the roof of 101 Constitution Ave. NW. It is a tiered fundraiser, and will reach out to every echelon of McCain supporter, according to a fundraiser. Later that evening, McCain is expected to host another fundraiser in Northern Virginia.

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who has written extensively on lobbying and politics, called the campaigns’ stand on lobbyists disingenuous.

Loomis, an Obama supporter, said the Illinois Senator’s position and rhetoric about lobbyists has “really bothered me from the get-go.”

“It’s really been Obama that has brought this into play,” Loomis said. “If you look at what ads are running where, the largest buys have often been the anti-lobbyist ads.

Obama, McCain and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) “really all more or less understand the role of lobbyists,” Loomis added. “By and large, lobbyists are relatively important parts of the Washington community.”

Most lobbyists interviewed said they did not believe the lobbyist issue on the campaign trail would sway voters one way or the other, and Loomis agreed with that.

“I think it may be a sub-theme,” he said. “It’s inside and worth talking about. But your campaign manager would have to be [lobbying for Osama] bin Laden to make this into an issue that moves voters.”

Both McCain and Obama have said they would bar aides in their would-be administrations from later lobbying the executive branch while they are in office.

The release of the rules has caused a mini-battle of one-upmanship between the campaigns, with each alleging that they have the stricter rules for lobbyists’ participation in the presidential race.

McCain’s camp, for its part, says that they do not allow lobbyists to serve as policy advisers to the campaign, while Obama does. The McCain campaign is also calling on Obama to release the list of lobbyists acting as advisers to the campaign, according to McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.

So far, McCain hasn’t done that yet because they are still sifting through the paperwork, according to Rogers.

McCain’s new Conflict Policy rules also require that no one with a McCain campaign title can participate in a 527 group that either supports or opposes a presidential candidate. The same rule applies for vendors contracted by the campaign to provide various services to the campaign, such as direct mail or Web design.

The rules were drafted by the campaign’s leadership and were disseminated after several lobbyists who became high-level campaign officials left because of their work on behalf of foreign governments.

In the Monday call with lobbyists, Nelson addressed the departure of top McCain fundraiser former Rep. Tom Loeffler (R-Texas), Loeffler Group lobbyist, by telling downtown that it was an amicable and voluntary departure.

Others who have left because of ties to clients include the DCI Group’s Doug Goodyear and Doug Davenport, as well as Craig Shirley of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs.

Since the departures, the McCain campaign has refused to discuss individuals within the campaign.

“We’re not going to comment on individual situations other than to say everyone working for the campaign is going to be in compliance with our new policy, or they are not going to be with the campaign,” Rogers said.

Charlie Black, a longtime GOP operative who is serving as McCain’s right-hand man on the campaign, retired as chairman of BKSH & Associates in March.

Recently, Black has caught the ire of groups such as for work by his longtime firm on behalf of people such as Angolan dictator Jonas Savimbi and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos. Black did not return calls.

Black is continuing as a strategic adviser on behalf of McCain, alongside campaign manager Rick Davis, a former lobbyist at Davis Manafort (and years earlier, a principal at Black’s old firm, Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly), who took a leave of absence two years ago.

John Green, co-founder of Ogilvy Government Relations, took an unpaid leave from Ogilvy beginning on March 31, and is working as McCain’s Congressional liaison, working mostly on outreach to Capitol Hill. He is not involved in policy discussions and is an unpaid volunteer for the campaign, according to an Ogilvy spokesman.

Green, who co-founded the all-Republican Federalist Group in 1999 — which was later purchased by Ogilvy — worked on behalf of several Fortune 500 companies during his tenure, as well as the countries of Cyprus and Trinidad and Tobago.

Longtime GOP strategist Frank Donatelli, who McCain picked as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, took a similar tact.

Donatelli, who joined the RNC in mid-March, went on unpaid leave of absence from McGuireWoods Consulting and stopped lobbying for firm clients, according to former Rep. L.F. Payne (D-Va.), the president of the consulting shop.

Wayne Berman, chairman of Ogilvy, has also had a leadership role in the McCain campaign, working as deputy finance chairman. Berman, who remains at Ogilvy full time, is an unpaid volunteer for McCain, according to a firm spokesman.

Lobbyists familiar with the McCain operation said K Street supporters recently have been instructed to remain mum about the campaign.

While McCain has tried to distance himself from lobbyists while on the campaign trail, he has long had a large base of support on K Street. A stable of K Street lobbyists, including Tim McKone of AT&T, Walter McCormick Jr. of U.S. Telecom, Todd Weiss of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal and brothers Keith and Ken Nahigian of Nahigian Strategies have help pad his campaign coffers.

Lobbyists also have traveled and done advance work for campaign stops.

For example, Juleanna Glover of The Ashcroft Group spent several months traveling with McCain as an unpaid volunteer helping out with press inquiries. Robbie Aiken, a lobbyist for Arizona-based Pinnacle West, has also done advance work for the campaign. And Robert Fisher of Verizon used vacation time to campaign for the Senator.

Aiken, who has done advance work for Republican presidential nominees since 1980, says he was working as an unpaid volunteer for the campaign.

“I will adhere to the rules of the new policy statement that I signed,” Aiken said. “I was never sent a letter saying you are a policy adviser, but I happened to know a lot of people associated with the campaign.”

While lobbyists may be resigned to being the campaign trail’s punching bag, they say there could be financial ramifications for McCain’s new policy. “If nothing else, it provides an excuse to people who are ambivalent to decide they aren’t going to” contribute, said a McCain fundraiser.

“At the end of the day, none of these candidates is perfect to the beholder. It comes down to if it’s going to be a McCain or an Obama presidency and most people in this town are professional enough where they will be where they need to be even if some of them are holding their nose.”

Watchdog groups and campaign finance experts say the close attention to K Streeters on the campaign trail could have some positive benefits. “To the extent that this is a conversation about how to reduce the influence of so-called special interests and make politicians more responsive to the people who elect them, that’s a good thing,” said Massie Ritsch, the spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“If it’s just an argument about who has more lobbyists working for them or which clients those lobbyists represent, then the discussion stops short of what voters might like to hear.”

Recent Stories

Are these streaks made to be broken?

Supreme Court airs concerns over Oregon city’s homelessness law

Supreme Court to decide if government can regulate ‘ghost guns’

Voters got first true 2024 week with Trump on trial, Biden on the trail

Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on abortion and Trump

House passes $95.3B aid package for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan