Wright & Kirkman: Experience, Not Party Ties, Matter Most on K Street

Posted October 28, 2010 at 11:10am

After the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, Washington-based trade associations and lobbying firms moved rapidly to hire GOP staffers to establish influence with the new legislative majority. After more than 40 years of Democratic control, Republicans were a relative minority in the influence industry, a fact GOP leaders noted when they initiated the “K Street Project,” a controversial effort to pressure major firms and associations to replace old-guard Democratic lobbyists with Republicans.

Firms and associations saw the writing on the wall, and a wave of connected Republicans went to K Street.

The GOP influx halted in 2006 and 2008 when voters ushered in new Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House. Firms and associations were again forced to rebalance.

Now, with Republicans poised to regain the House of Representatives and make gains in the Senate, some employment professionals wonder whether there will be a major influx of Republicans to K Street.

We doubt it, for several reasons.

First, unlike 1994, when many associations and firms were seen as subsidiaries of one party, most successful D.C. interests today are far more balanced. They give money to both sides, and they hire from both parties. Many of our clients believe that wholesale change is unnecessary.

Second, given the public relations drubbing Republicans got in 2006 from the Jack Abramoff scandal, Congressional leaders will not get tied up with brazenly promoting party favorites as gatekeepers anytime soon. It’s unlikely either party will want to play in the K Street Project 2.0 sandbox.

Third, another flip will breed uncertainty among D.C.’s political class. If Republicans take over Congress this year, it will be the third power shift in 16 years. Upheaval is the new normal. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in 2012. If the economy doesn’t improve, Republicans could be out again. As a result, caution will reign.

What will this mean for employers and candidates in D.C.’s political jobs market?

For the job candidates, it means expertise will matter more than partisanship.

Lochlin Partners’ clients are already telling us they’re looking for people who’ve had a seat at the policymaking table, no matter how their bosses ultimately voted.

Partisanship will matter less at the finish line, too. After the 2008 elections, many of the top jobs came down to the most qualified Democrat and the most qualified Republican. Because D.C. was a one-party town, the Democrat usually got the job. Candidates can no longer count on this. That’s good news for GOP staffers, but because the private sector will put a higher premium on expertise, it doesn’t necessarily mean Democrats will be out.

For employers, these factors will mean preserving and enhancing their balanced staffs. The private sector must be prepared for voters’ attitudes to shift again in two years; it must think past the current election cycle when considering whom to hire. Employers should take a step back from the partisan outcome and take a serious look at what issues are likely to crop up and hire staffers who have the knowledge to navigate those waters. Substance should be key when creating, or re-creating, a staff.

There will be staff movement after the elections — midterms always produce personnel shifts no matter the electoral outcome. The challenge for D.C. practitioners will be not to fall into the partisan trap. Those that find the right mix of expertise and skill will be well-positioned no matter what voters decide after 2010.

Liza Wright and Mike Kirkman are founding partners of the executive search firm Lochlin Partners.