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Denver Lobbyists Follow Well-Oiled Career Path

In recent years, the lobbying landscape in the Mile High City has been transformed from a small band of aging good ol’ cowboys to a sprawling network of young up-and-comers.

New term limits for Colorado state lawmakers coupled with a strict gift ban that forbids lobbyists from giving almost anything of value to elected officials — save for campaign contributions — has paved the way for this new generation of advocates.

So when a big corporation finds itself fending off a proposal or trying to push through a bill in the Colorado General Assembly, who are the lobbyists at the top of their game?

Like their counterparts in Washington, D.C., many of Colorado’s top lobbyists include the usual suspects: former state lawmakers and their one-time top aides.

Big shops like Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and other national law and lobbying firms with offices here — like Patton Boggs and Greenberg Traurig — have an obvious lobbying presence.

But it’s the small lobby boutiques that are increasingly the go-to shops for some of the state’s most notable clients.

One of the city’s most sought-after lobbyists is Democrat Mike Feeley, a former Colorado state Senate Minority Leader, who opened for business in 2001 as a partner at Isaacson Rosenbaum. The firm is also state counsel to the Democratic convention. Feeley’s client roster includes Comcast, Colorado Automobile Dealers Association and Exempla Healthcare.

“Everyone thought the lobbyists would be more powerful when the legislators were term-limited, but old-time lobbyists didn’t want to go out and make new connections every few years,” Feeley said. “They’d been working the same people for 20 years, and they said, ‘I’ve gotta go out and meet these young whippersnappers? It’s time to retire.’”

Still, Feeley said the new crop of lawmakers relies heavily on the new lobbying corps. State lawmakers have little staff assistance. “It’s a good place to work if you get a reputation of being straight with people,” he said of being a Colorado lobbyist.

Democrats like Feeley have enjoyed something of a business boom — similar to K Street D’s — since the party secured complete control of the governor’s mansion and the House and Senate in 2006.

But GOP lobbyists like Steve Durham, a former state Senator and House Member, are still in demand.

The list of Durham’s clients at his firm, Colorado Winning Edge, sounds like a respectable portfolio for any D.C. lobbyist: Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and U.S. Tobacco, as well as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Home Builders.

“It’s a little more challenging environment, but certainly not impossible,” Durham said of the Democratic dominance in the state. “So far it’s worked out fine. I think most of my clients have enjoyed some level of success.”

Among lobbyists, however, the real success has come among women. Several all-female firms have risen in prominence including the Capstone Group, whose three partners are Democrat Moira Cullen, Republican Mary Marchun and Christine Staberg, who says she is not affiliated with either party.

Jenifer Brandeberry, a one-time aide to then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), and Julie McKenna, who worked for then-Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), run Brandeberry-McKenna Public Affairs, while Ruth Aponté and Edie Busam make up Aponté & Busam.

Brandeberry-McKenna’s clients include the City and County of Denver, the Regional Transportation District, the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District. They also represent such big-name companies as Nestle Waters, TIAA-CREF, Comcast and Xcel Energy.

While Brandeberry and McKenna have Republican backgrounds, Brandeberry said they work both sides of the aisle and, as part of that, host fundraisers for members of both parties. In the 10 years that they have been lobbying, Brandeberry says the two women have worked under total GOP control, split power and the current Democratic control.

“With term limits, it’s so fluid. You really have to be willing to lobby 100 legislators,” she said. “That freshman Democrat literally four years later can become Speaker of the House.”

Capstone Group’s clients include the Independent Bankers of Colorado, Colorado Tourism Office and the Colorado Psychological Association. The three partners opened the shop five years ago.

“We had worked with one another and against one another, and thought we worked harder than the good ol’ boys club,” Capston partner Staberg said. “And with term limits and the environment in Colorado, it really has made an opportunity for a new group of lobbyists who break the old mold.”

Men, of course, are still a powerful part of the mix.

Solo lobbyist Steve Balcerovich, a Democrat, represents the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, and Xcel Energy. He formerly worked in D.C. for the Edison Electric Institute but returned to Colorado and started lobbying the state House in 1992.

Balcerovich said that in addition to the term limits, a gavel amendment, which requires that every bill receive a hearing, has made the Denver lobbying scene a more open, professional process.

“When I started, you had the guys in the cowboy boots who spoke few words and gave a thumbs up or thumbs down,” he said. “There’s been almost a turnover to a younger lobbying core — and more female.”

Before the gift ban passed in 2006, Balcerovich said, lobbyists would fete state lawmakers with sports games and lavish breakfasts, lunches and banquets. Now, he said, “cheap is in.”

Travis Berry, founder of Politicalworks with partner Scott Chase, was a longtime top aide for then-Gov. Roy Romer (D) and followed Romer to the Democratic National Committee when Romer became its chairman. Berry has gained a reputation as a moderate Democrat whose client roster is filled with business interests: Colorado Competitive Council, Level 3 Communications, Western Union and First Data Corp. He also represents the Colorado Nature Conservancy and Western State College.

One recent client victory came last session when Berry, working for a coalition of liquor stores, worked to overturn the state’s longtime ban on Sunday liquor sales. Typically, though, he said, “a whole lot of the work is defense in nature, trying to keep bad things from happening to your clients.”

Berry is no fan of the strict gift ban.

“I think we’ve taken the gift bans to such a ridiculous extreme that people who actually work together are freaked out to associate with one another,” he said. “It’s taken some of the fun out of it, too.”

Republican lobbyist Durham would agree. “I hate it,” he said, “but the good news is I’ve lost weight.”

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