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Talking Turkey Is Lobbyist’s Gravy Train

As most of Washington continues to focus solely on the health care debate, Damon Wells may have the best seasonal gig in town — chief lobbyist for the gobble lobby.

Wells, who has been at the National Turkey Federation for the past three years, serves as the Thanksgiving centerpiece’s eyes, ears and biggest advocate on Capitol Hill.

Working for the turkey lobby certainly has its perks.

“I can assure you that everyone at least makes a comment,— Wells said of his meetings with staffers and Members of Congress.

While health care and financial services lobbyists often face difficult policy queries right off the bat, the question that Wells gets most often on Capitol Hill: What’s your favorite way to cook a turkey?

The Texas native has a quick answer.

“I love fried turkey with a little bit of Cajun sauce,— Wells said. “And I always get their best turkey story.—

In affairs of state, that can even mean using the fine-feathered bird as a means of easing diplomatic relations.

One turkey lover, who was also a former State Department official, told Wells that during the 1982 Lebanon War, turkeys were the only bargaining chip that would appease gangs to let State Department officials travel throughout the country.

“The one thing that was as good as currency was a bag of Butterball turkey,— Wells said. “So the State Department actually loaded up a ship in the Mediterranean Sea that was loaded with Butterball turkeys.—

The industry also has its aficionados on Capitol Hill. Minnesota and North Carolina have historically been top turkey-producing states.

Keeping It Lean

To help make its case in Washington, the federation has a government relations staff of 10, including its marketing division.

It has spent $240,000 on lobbying so far this year, according to Senate lobbying disclosure reports.

A lean staff means that Wells and even the association’s president, Joel Brandenberger, field consumer questions about how to cook a turkey.

The inquiries range from the mundane to the outrageous. Wells once helped an Arizona man asking for assistance on how to prepare a live bird.

“There are still some people who don’t just go buy [their turkey] at the grocery store,— Wells said.

He never discovered how the turkey turned out, but the lobbyist did give the caller some resources about how to get a live bird ready for the Thanksgiving table.

Sherrie Rosenblatt, public relations director for the federation, has also answered a number of wacky calls, including one from a woman who opted to defrost her turkey in an extremely nontraditional way.

“She said, ‘We’ve decided to defrost our turkey, and it says to change the water every 30 minutes, but we didn’t have room in our sink, so we put it in the toilet and have been flushing every 30 minutes,’— Rosenblatt recalled. “I said I didn’t think that was a very good idea.—

But it’s not all about cooking prep and how to use leftovers.

Pardon Me

One highly visible annual tradition for the group is the upcoming pardoning of the national Thanksgiving turkey by President Barack Obama. The lucky bird is from the chairman of the federation’s turkey farm. This year, Chairman Walter Pelletier, a turkey producer from Goldsboro, N.C., has been given the responsibility to bring the broad-breasted white turkey to the White House to have it pardoned.

The federation also has more serious matters on its agenda.

The turkey lobby is following the food safety bill going through the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The group has also lobbied on avian flu legislation, cap-and-trade bills and other food safety issues.

“We certainly are very interested and concerned with those regulations and our industry’s ability to remain productive and profitable,— Wells said.

While using the turkey lobby as his professional gravy train wasn’t a lifelong dream for Wells, loving to eat turkey was definitely a prerequisite for his job.

“Thanksgiving is still my favorite time of the year, but I love eating turkey at breakfast, lunch and dinner,— Wells said.

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