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Street Talk: It Takes a K Street Village to Land Well Downtown

Brian Gaston gets it.

After coming seriously close to hitting lifer status on Capitol Hill, the senior aide to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) is heading downtown. But where some Congressional staffers make the leap with little understanding of the downtown marketplace, Gaston relied on a village of K Street insiders to advise him on the mores of the lobby economy.

[IMGCAP(1)]The tale of how Gaston ended up with a deal to join the Glover Park Group shows how a lot of business gets done — through a network of people who worked in the government and now run corporate shops and lobbying practices.

“You just know when it’s time to leave,” Gaston said recently, still giddy from his freshly inked deal with Glover Park, a Democratic-heavy public affairs and lobbying outfit.

At 48 years old, Gaston has spent more than half of his life, 26 years, on Capitol Hill. Although he has from time to time flirted with going to the private sector — think 1995 when Republicans took control of Congress and K Street shops scrambled for GOPers — he really made the decision last year.

That’s when he started meeting with a who’s who of Republican lobbyists: Nick Calio, who runs Citigroup’s government affairs; Mark Isakowitz and Kirsten Chadwick of Fierce Isakowitz & Blalock; David Hobbs, president of the Hobbs Group; Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart’s Peter Madigan; Gregg Hartley, chief operating officer of Cassidy & Associates; Susan Hirschmann from Williams & Jensen; and about 15 other one-time bosses, former employees and friends. He also reached out to headhunter Ivan Adler of the McCormick Group, who specializes in placing lobbyists.

Calio told him to start spreading the word that he was eyeing a downtown career.

“So I started sending e-mails, or telling people when I saw them, ‘I’m looking to leave,'” Gaston recalled. “I just started sending my résumé around.”

That résumé touted his leadership of former House Majority Whip Blunt’s office as well as his work for former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) and former House Republican Conference Chairman John Boehner (Ohio).

When someone with Gaston’s pedigree is looking to leave the Hill, there are typically three types of lobbying jobs: in-house at the Washington, D.C., outpost for a corporation, a position with a trade association, or a gig at a law or lobbying firm. Gaston told Chadwick and Isakowitz he didn’t want to pursue a firm. “Lobbying firms seem designed for the majority party, and it seems harder to break into that,” Gaston said of his thoughts at the time.

“They both told me, ‘You ought not to rule out going to a lobbying firm,'” he said. They made the pitch: At a firm, Gaston would be able to work on multiple legislative issues and could draw on his list of Capitol Hill contacts from a variety of offices.

He decided to keep that option open.

At the same time, during the late fall of last year, Gaston was advised to wait.

He said Hobbs and Sam Geduldig, a lobbyist with Clark Lytle & Geduldig who worked for Gaston in Blunt’s Whip operation, urged patience because the political environment was looking brighter for Republicans.

“We were saying, ‘Things are turning around a lot quicker than we even imagined,'” Geduldig said.

The frosty market for GOP lobbyists, especially outside consultants like Geduldig, was thawing.

And that was even before Scott Brown, a Republican, won a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Geduldig says, half jokingly, that since Democrats have been in control of Congress and the White House, clients would put the Republican consultants in the back of the room. The well-established Democratic lobbyists such as Elmendorf Strategies’ Steve Elmendorf, Podesta Group’s Tony Podesta and Joel Johnson of the Glover Park Group were the ones everyone wanted to hear from. “You were just happy to be in the room,” Geduldig said. “Now everyone’s like, ‘Hey, what do you guys think down there?'”

More seriously, Geduldig says Gaston is making a good move to Glover Park.

“Brian took this seriously. He wanted to do this the right way,” Geduldig said. “He wanted to know the experiences that all these different people had.”

Not only was he drawing from those people’s experiences, but his networking led him to Glover.

Johnson, whose largely Democratic firm sometimes works with the all-GOP Fierce Isakowitz & Blalock, was looking for some additional Republican help. “We are always looking to recruit talent on both sides of the aisle,” Johnson explained.

“Joel had mentioned to Mark, and we immediately both said to Joel, ‘You need to talk to Brian Gaston,'” Chadwick said.

That was in early December.

“There was a timing aspect, but we also just knew they would be a good fit in terms of personality,” Chadwick added. “Brian has vast experience both politically and policy-wise. Joel is very similar. They run a five-star shop over there.”

Gaston said that after a sit-down with Johnson — whom he first met eight years ago during a privately funded Congressional fact-finding trip — he was intrigued by the idea of being one of the few Republicans at the firm. Gaston also liked the opportunity to help build up the shop’s credentials on the GOP side.

“I just had a very good feeling,” Gaston said of his meeting with Johnson at the firm’s offices. “My reaction when I left was ‘This is worth pursuing.'”

By mid-January, Gaston had a three-hour series of meetings at Glover Park, first with the firm’s founders, Democrats Carter Eskew, Michael Feldman and Chip Smith. Then the firm’s other lobbyists, including Susan Brophy and Gregg Rothschild, circled in. “I knew of Susan,” Gaston said. “She said, ‘You have a very strong advocate in Lisa Nelson.'” Lisa Nelson, a lobbyist for Visa, worked with Brophy at Time Warner; Nelson, while an aide to former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), got to know Gaston when he worked for Boehner.

He found similar connections with many of the other Glover Park lobbyists. By Feb. 1, Gaston had signed on.

He declined to discuss salary specifics, but it’s a raise over his Congressional income.

Gaston says he’s not in it for the money — and his advice for fellow Hill staffers who are looking to go to K Street: Stay put.

“It’s so easy to go downtown to chase the dollars,” he said. “For me, that was never an objective.”

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