K Street Mixers in the Age of Tea Party Purity

Posted November 20, 2010 at 3:54pm

Republican Tim Powers recently found himself, unexpectedly, a target of tea party vitriol — all because the Artemis Strategies lobbyist was doing what every K Streeter wants to do: He was getting to know incoming Members of Congress.

Powers helped a group of Members-elect organize their class preorientation program Nov. 14 at the Capitol Hill Club. It was sponsored by the Claremont Institute.

Trouble was, the Tea Party Patriots was holding a freshman event the same afternoon, and its organizers blasted the Claremont program in an e-mail to supporters as “coordinated by lobbyists and campaign consultants.” It even mentioned Powers by name, calling him “the quintessential DC insider and lobbyist.”

The group’s e-mail, titled “Don’t Let Them Steal OUR New Members of Congress,” continued: “The water in the Potomac is infected with the politics of the past and needs to be boiled to be cleansed and then steeped in fresh tea.”

Despite the dire warnings, more than 60 members of the GOP freshman class attended the event connected to Powers.

And in reality, dozens of meet-and-greets and fundraisers — organized or attended by lobbyists — have been happening all over town with Members-elect of both sides of the aisle. Many more are planned in the coming weeks, including a luncheon fundraiser Dec. 1 for Rep.-elect Alan Nunnelee (R-Miss.).

Lobbyists also have been invited to a debt retirement lunch for Rep.-elect Jim Renacci (R-Ohio) on Dec. 7 and a meet-and-greet with Republican Reps.-elect Kristi Noem (S.D.) and Tim Scott (S.C.) on Dec. 8. In addition, downtown denizens are marking their calendars for a Jan. 4 reception at the W Hotel put on by America’s New Majority to welcome the 112th Congress with a special musical performance by LeAnn Rimes.

Republican lobbyist Alex Vogel, a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, said too much is being made of the tug of war for new Members between remaining tea-party pure and getting cozy with Washington’s power players.

“It’s not about meeting with people who are working on key policy issues — that’s helpful to them,” said Vogel, who is organizing numerous new-Member meet-and-greets. “What people don’t want to see is Members who don’t go home anymore.”

Powers, who noted that his firm did not pay for or receive any payment for informally helping with the Claremont program, said he simply offered to help the incoming freshman Republicans organize themselves.

“It’s a classic case of no good deed goes unpunished,” Powers quipped.

In 1994, as the Republican National Committee’s liaison to the GOP freshman class, he helped the newly elected Republicans do everything from finding D.C.-area real estate agents to hiring professional staff members to setting them up with TV interviews back home.

“I thought ’94 was a once-in-a lifetime thing,” Powers said. “I thought I would never have to use those skills again, but fast forward. I received a call about three weeks before the election. About half a dozen or so of the freshman incoming class began talking to one another, saying ‘We ought to be prepared to organize, to hit the ground running.’”

Vogel, a former aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), plans to organize a meet-and-greet for a trio of newly elected Republicans from Virginia: Scott Rigell, Robert Hurt and Morgan Griffith. Vogel said the nonfundraisers allow freshmen and lobbyists to discuss substantive policy issues and interact on a personal level.

“All these new Members have spent the last year back in their districts telling everybody who they are but have had no opportunity to do that here in D.C. outside of the context of the fundraiser,” Vogel said. “It’s very helpful for them to meet people and hear from people that are going to be relevant for their legislative careers.”

Republican lobbyists aren’t the only ones making introductions to Members-elect. While they have a much smaller club, Democrats say they too must forge ties with their party’s newbies.

Three Indian American lobbyists, along with the Indian American Leadership Initiative, hosted a shindig Wednesday for Rep.-elect Hansen Clarke (D-Mich.), who is the third Indian American elected to Congress. Patton Boggs lobbyists Vinoda Basnayake and Anurag Varma and KPMG’s Priya Dayananda feted Clarke at Eden lounge downtown.

“It was really important to welcome Hansen in and to do something special,” said Dayananda, who noted that when she worked on the Hill a decade ago there were almost no Indian American staffers. “We’re so behind in getting our people elected, but we ’re getting there,” Varma added.

Even though most K Streeters are determined to move now to get valuable face time with the incoming freshmen, some lobbyists say they are waiting to begin their outreach until the new Members have their committee assignments. But no matter when they start the process, most lobbyists say getting to know the freshmen will take months — especially on the GOP side.

Powers says that even though his first effort to informally counsel the incoming freshmen got him some unwelcome publicity, he expects he’ll continue to reach out to the new class.

“Many of them are coming into it with the stereotypical view of Washington,” Powers said. “But everybody isn’t intrinsically evil.”