This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Republican Convention Guide.
If Capitol Hill is the grown-up equivalent of high school, then the quadrennial party conventions are sleep-away camps for the political elite. For K Street, that means four days and four nights of partying with a purpose: mingling with corporate clients, members of Congress, Hill aides, campaign strategists and government officials.
This week, as Republicans gather in Tampa to anoint Mitt Romney their standard-bearer, the lobbyists who have descended on the city will stay out of the spotlight. Most will never venture to the convention floor. But behind the scenes, at venues ranging from a yacht on the bay to TPC Tampa Bay golf course, they will polish their connections with Washington movers and shakers, and dote on clients – even if that just means providing them with a cold one.
“We’re a client-service business,” says Republican lobbyist Alex Vogel of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti. “Usually, that’s government relations, but when we’re all in Tampa, what we decided our clients really need is some transportation, some air conditioning and they’ll probably want a drink.”
Vogel and his colleagues have chartered a luxury limo-bus to ferry clients and friends between night spots around town. Branded as Bus Force One, the air-conditioned vehicle will have a well-stocked beverage supply and beer cozies emblazoned with the firm’s name. Vogel’s firm will tweet exact bus stops each evening.
The firm also sponsored several events put on by Magnum Entertainment Group, the enterprise of another lobbyist, Jeffrey J. Kimbell, whose day job is running Jeffrey J. Kimbell & Associates. That package – which can run into the six figures for top-level sponsors – provides tickets to concerts by bands such as Blues Traveler, Big Head Todd & The Monsters, and Better Than Ezra.
But K Streeters won’t only be spectators.
Lobbyist Jane Adams, lead singer for the D.C. band Blame It On Jane, was planning to serenade her Johnson & Johnson colleagues on the evening of Aug. 26. Podesta Group lobbyist Steve Northrup is also in the band, and the concert on a boat in the bay is hosted by J&J and the Republican Main Street Partnership.
Trade groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America are playing host to concerts and receptions. And interest groups, from Bono’s One Campaign to Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, are also on the ground to make sure decision-makers don’t forget about them.
Norquist, who is famous for his organization’s no-tax-increase pledge, is taking his weekly meeting of conservatives to the Cigar City, Tampa’s nickname. In keeping with the cigar theme, the lobbying and law firm K&L Gates is hosting two receptions at the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. in the Ybor City enclave.
“We’re always looking for something interesting that you can’t do anywhere else,” says former Rep. James T. Walsh, R-N.Y., who is a government affairs counselor at the firm. The parties will include tours of the factory, which Walsh says is the last remaining functioning factory in the city. “I can’t even spell ‘aficionado,’ ” he says, “but I do enjoy a cigar.”
Other lobbyists have combined networking with officials along with raising funds for charities. GOP lobbyist Ari Storch, who runs Artemis Strategies, helped organize a Birdies for the Brave golf tournament Aug. 27 at TPC Tampa Bay. House Speaker and Ohio Republican John A. Boehner is an honorary co-chairman. Intel and SAP are the major backers of the tournament, which is expected to raise more than $1 million for wounded soldiers and sailors, with much of the money going to fund two homes for injured veterans.
“Last year when we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do at the conventions, we thought, ‘Do we really just want to throw our money into a party, and just throw it away?’ No offense to the party planners,” Storch recalls. “We decided, ‘Let’s do some good with the fact that we’re all getting together.’ We wanted to do something that would leave a permanent mark.”
But K Streeters won’t be alone. Good-government lobbyists will have a presence, and they’re hoping to kill the party scene. Public Citizen’s Craig Holman says he plans to identify parties that may be illegal under ethics rules and lobbying laws. Members of Congress, for example, are prohibited from attending parties in their honor at the conventions. “We’ll alert our people on the ground and try to coordinate crashing of those parties,” Holman says, referring to the convention as a “complete influence-peddling free-for-all.”