Lobbyists Try to Enter Congress

Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:24pm

Everyone knows the typical route goes like this: Serve a few terms in Congress and then cash in that experience for a fatter paycheck on K Street. But 11 candidates running for House or Senate seats this year have already been lobbyists or association executives and are looking to trade in the trappings of the private sector for Congressional lapel pins.

In an election year where the anti-lobbyist rhetoric has reached a new apex, some of these candidates, most of whom are Republicans, have watched their opponents use their lobbying backgrounds as fodder for political attacks. Still, many of the former lobbyists say their experience on the outside of the legislative process, whether at the state or federal level, would serve them well when it comes to maneuvering in the halls of Capitol Hill.

“I know the governmental system,” said Susan Bitter Smith, a Republican running for Arizona’s 5th district and head of the Arizona-New Mexico Cable Communications Association. “Obviously, running an association, you have to put together very different opinions and bring consensus. That’s exactly what a Member of Congress does.”

Bitter Smith is competing in a six-way GOP primary, to be held on Sept. 2, in which one of the other contenders, Jim Ogsbury, is a former K Street denizen.

A former House Appropriations Committee aide, Ogsbury went on to build a practice at Jones Walker, a law firm affiliated with the Livingston Group, and then at TriAdvocates, an Arizona shop. He left TriAdvocates in April 2007 to run full-time for the seat.

“My clients were Arizona cities and towns,” Ogsbury said. “I think it operates as a net positive. The very first day I’m sworn into office is a working day. I know where the Clerk’s office is. I know how to score a bill. I understand legislative language.”

While Bitter Smith’s and Ogsbury’s lobbying backgrounds have not taken center stage in the Arizona race, across the country in Ohio’s 15th district, anti-lobbyist attacks have become a cornerstone of a one-time lobbyist’s opponent.

That race pits Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy (D) against Steve Stivers (R), who was vice president of government relations at Bank One in Columbus until 2003 when he became a state Senator.

“Steve Stivers’ career as a lobbyist is a central theme in this race because Central Ohio residents are looking for real answers to the serious economic problems that have been caused by too much lobbyist influence in the state and federal government,” Kilroy’s communications director, Brad Bauman, said in an e-mail. “It simply cuts to the core of his credibility. … He spends a lifetime advocating for banking deregulation and then wants to tell people in Ohio how he’s gonna help fix the mortgage crisis, people simply don’t buy it.”

Stivers’ campaign manager, Mike Hartley, said the Republican candidate “was an advocate” for one of the state’s largest employers and “worked to bring jobs to Central Ohio” when he worked for Bank One.

And National Republicans charge that Kilroy, whose campaign accepts donations from political action committees and lobbyists, is a hypocrite.

“Democrats like Mary Jo Kilroy who are desperately trying to tag their opponents with the lobbyist label might consider looking inward before they foolishly start leveling charges,” said Ken Spain, press secretary for the National Republic Congressional Committee. Referring to a statement made in which a Kilroy aide equated lobbyists with ax murderers, Spain said, “If you want to compare lobbyists to ax murderers, then you probably shouldn’t take thousands of dollars in campaign cash from them in order to prop up your own campaign.”

Doug Thornell, Spain’s counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said that since most of the ex-lobbyist candidates are Republicans, it’s the GOP that has the problem.

“Republican candidates prefer to bring K Street priorities, not Main Street values, to Congress,” Thornell said. “It’s telling that the GOP would still be embracing the same lobbyist culture that brought down the old corrupt Republican majority in 2006.”

Other Republicans with a lobbying or association background who are making a go at Congress include former K Streeter Wayne Parker in Alabama’s 5th district, former National Restaurant Association Chairman Ed Tinsley in New Mexico’s 2nd district, mining lobbyist Sydney Hay in Arizona’s 1st district and Bob Straniere in New York’s 13th district, who says he only registered through a former firm out of an abundance of caution and did not actually lobby.

The Democrats include Senate hopefuls Jim Slattery in Kansas, Larry LaRocco, a one-time D.C. contract lobbyist, in Idaho as well as transportation consultant El Tinklenberg in Minnesota’s 6th district and Will Shafroth in Colorado’s 2nd district. As executive director of the group Great Outdoors Colorado, Shafroth registered as a lobbyist in order to work on state legislation, his campaign manager Lynea Hansen said, but lobbying was not his primary role.

In the Kansas Senate race, incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts’ (R) campaign recently launched an ad called “Gas” attacking Slattery, a former Congressman who spent 14 years at Wiley Rein representing clients such as the Kansas City Southern Railway Co., Spirit Airlines, Washington Citizens for World Trade and Verizon Wireless.

“Who’s Washington lobbyist Jim Slattery kidding on gas prices?” asks the ad’s narrator. “Slattery’s Washington lobbying firm actually had Big Oil as a client. … Gas prices? As a lobbyist Jim Slattery’s part of the problem.”

Abbie Hodgson, spokeswoman for the Slattery campaign, said that most of her boss’ work at Wiley Rein was focused on international trade law and not lobbying. When he has lobbied, she said, he has “never taken a client whose cause he didn’t believe in, and has never worked against the public’s best interest.”

Hay, who serves as president of the Arizona Mining Association and runs her own business called Southwest Policy Group, delivers a similar message. She said the issues she’s championed as a lobbyist are in line with her GOP values.

“It’s not like my lobbying is where I take any client that comes in the door with a check,” said Hay, who added that for the first time one of her primary opponents took a dig at her lobbying background during a candidate forum on Tuesday. “I’ve lobbied for tax cuts and school choice. All of these things are causes I believe in. It’s not like I’m some hired gun.”

Parker said he, too, was blasted by a primary opponent — though he won that election — for having been a lobbyist in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The opponent attempted to link him to now-jailed K Streeter Jack Abramoff, with whom Parker says he has no connection.

“They were good projects,” he said of his work for such federal clients as the American Family Business Institute and McAbee Construction. “One was the repeal of the death tax.”

He added, “Many people in the 5th Congressional district view it as a positive, because whoever they elect in November, they want their Representative to be as effective as quickly as possible. Having relationships with people who are current or former Members of Congress and with staff, I think, serves as an advantage to help that person be effective.”