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Street Talk: ‘Kick the Lobbyist’ Is Still a Favorite Pastime

Jim Slattery knows better than anyone the brutal nature of anti-lobbyist rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Slattery, a partner at Wiley Rein, spent six terms in the House. But in 2008 when he went back to Kansas voters in an attempt to win a Senate seat, the Democrat faced a kind of campaign vitriol reserved especially for K Street.

“There’s no question: The public has a disdain for lobbyists,” Slattery admits. “I think one of the things that is troubling today to voters, and one of the things that voters are sick of, is just all of the B.S., the creation of bogeymen.”

But if voters are sick of the anti-K Street political messages, it seems no one has gotten that memo. And as the 2010 campaign season unfolds, lobbyists, especially former Members like Slattery, say they expect this year to be no different when their one-time colleagues hit the trail.

Already some Members who are getting ready to face voters this year have unveiled a K Street reform measure that would ban ex-lawmakers from lobbying and would extend the cooling-off period to six years for Congressional aides who move into the influence business. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is the bill’s lead sponsor.

“It probably will never cease to be a political campaign issue,” says former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), who is now a lobbyist with Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Bode Matz. “It’s been an issue since our government was first created.”

Of course, to nearly all Members of Congress, lobbyist money is welcome to help bolster their campaign coffers. But in a year when no fewer than two movies are coming out about the scandal involving jailed ex-K Streeter Jack Abramoff, lobbyists can expect lots of shots coming their way.

Stenholm, though, is a big fan of the advocacy industry. “When I was in Congress, I welcomed lobbyists,” he says.

But even he eschews the brand of lobbyist, preferring “educator” instead.

“My wife of 48 years said being married to a Congressman for 26 years was enough burden for anyone,” Stenholm recalls. “When we had the opportunity to become a lobbyist, she said, ‘Do you have to be called a lobbyist?’ I said, ‘No, educator.'”

The Educators

As a Member, Stenholm says the “educators” helped him understand the complex issues that he had to vote on. “There’s no way you can keep up with what’s happening in an industry in 50 states unless you’re willing to listen,” he adds.

Another Representative-turned-lobbyist, Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), says the anti-K Street rhetoric is overrated. “Do I think it will stop? No,” he says, “because people are desperate to find ways to run against Washington.”

Burdett Loomis, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies lobbying, is closely watching the Indiana Senate race pitting former Republican Sen. Dan Coats, a one-time D.C. lobbyist, er, educator, against Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D).

Loomis says he doesn’t believe attacks against Members for special interest ties actually influence the outcomes of most elections. The notable exemption, though, is when a candidate like Coats or Slattery is actually on the ballot.

“People assume that all politicians are, if not corrupt, then susceptible,” Loomis says.

But just maybe all the anti-lobbying rhetoric helps fuel that impression.

Slattery, for one, believes so.

“I think this is a dangerous phenomenon that is developing,” he says. “Both political parties are probably equally guilty of this: feeding the monster. Both political parties ought to call a truce, so they can focus on real problems in this country.”

Loomis agrees the anti-lobbying message from candidates is disingenuous, even when it came from now-President Barack Obama.

“They rely upon the information from lobbyists, and there are no virgins here at all,” Loomis quips.

Obama’s policy against employing lobbyists has hurt the president, Loomis argues. “It was a battle he didn’t have to fight,” the professor says. “Every time he turns to someone who has lobbied, he’s seen as a hypocrite.”

Stenholm also disagrees with the president. “It was a political issue that works with a lot of people, but I’m not sure it helps create a better system of government,” he says. “If you’re going to get the kind of advice your administration needs, having people that know a little bit about the issue ain’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Charm Offensive

The former Members should be happy to learn the American League of Lobbyists is planning this year to launch a PR offensive on behalf of the K Street industry.

Dave Wenhold, president of the lobbyists’ group, says he wants to give his sector a human face.

“We’re going to be demonstrating that everybody has a lobbyist out there,” Wenhold explains. “The second you get up in the morning and you have your toast and eggs, the wheat and poultry lobbyists are involved. Then you get into your car, and you have the Toyota lobbyists.”

When you log on to your computer and surf the Web, don’t forget about the Google lobbyists.

“Most people have no idea that they have so many lobbyists in their day,” Wenhold says. “This is a priority for me to get the message out that we’re not all Jack Abramoff. I want to help people understand that the ‘L’ word is not a bad word.”

It won’t be enough to lure Slattery back to the campaign trail, though.

“I have at long last realized that I love Kansans more than Kansans love me,” he says. “I felt like a jilted lover. But I’m proud of what I do. I represent a lot of very good companies and interests.”

Good and, of course, special, too.