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Staying a Block Away

K Street, Obama Campaign Keep Their Distance

This article originally appeared in the CQ Weekly 2012 Democratic Convention Guide.

President Obama makes no secret of his disdain for Washington lobbyists. He prohibits them from donating to his campaign and bars them from joining his administration. Following suit, his party has outlawed K Street and corporate cash from supporting the Democratic convention.

But all over Charlotte this week, lobbyists will play host to clients and government officials at swanky receptions, NASCAR-themed happy hours and late-night concerts flowing with distilled spirits. Sure, they may talk a little policy, but mostly it’s about getting face time with party higher-ups.

“I saved my scarlet letter ‘L’ from Denver, so I could wear it again,” quips Tony ?Podesta, a Democratic lobbyist who runs the Podesta Group. He and his wife, who operates her own shop, Heather Podesta + Partners, have rented out Halcyon restaurant in the city’s Mint Museum for back-to-back “Farmhouse Chic” brunches that will feature chilled peach gazpacho with lavender crème fraiche, Carolina crab cakes, chocolate bourbon truffles and a signature drink infused with Catdaddy Moonshine. “Last time I checked, I’m still a lobbyist, so I’m going to stay in my cage,” cracks Heather Podesta. “But I’m going to eat well in my cage.”

Tony Podesta says the couple has received RSVPs from members of Congress, but he doesn’t expect much turnout from the executive branch. “The White House is pretty strict about discouraging its people from attending evil events where they might come under the undue influence of people like me,” he says. A similar brunch the Podestas hosted four years ago in Denver, though, was packed with “a lot of what turned out to be White House staff and Cabinet” officials, he notes.

David Thomas, a partner at the bipartisan firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, says the DNC’s restrictions on lobbyists didn’t factor into his shop’s “Charlotte Nights – Democrats! Start Your Engines” happy hour on Monday to kick off the convention. Like most K Street sponsors of convention bashes, the firm did run the details by its outside ethics lawyers to make sure it complies with congressional rules.

Hyping Charlotte’s NASCAR roots, the invite for the fete at Dandelion Market features Mehlman Vogel’s Democratic lobbyists in racing gear. “There is certainly no sort of policy purpose to doing something like this,” Thomas says. “It’s a way to entertain clients and visit with folks and get things started with the convention.”

Lobby groups with longstanding ties to Democrats will be on the ground to celebrate their allies. The trial lawyers’ lobby, American Association for Justice, will fete what it calls “pro-civil justice Democrats” on Wednesday at the Charlotte Capital Grille. And the Human Rights Campaign has three events, including a reception to honor lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender delegates and a panel discussion, cosponsored with Google, on the “State of the LGBT Movement.”

The restrictions on lobbyists and corporations also didn’t put the kibosh on the Financial Services Roundtable, which is hosting a private reception Tuesday that will honor Rebuilding Together, a group that helps low-income homeowners.

And the Organization for International Investment, which represents U.S. subsidiaries of international companies, is having events at the conventions for the first time this year. In keeping with the theme of a recent report the group put out, its Tuesday evening reception is titled “Global Investment Works Here.”

“It’s a way to facilitate our member companies’ interaction with participants at the convention,” says spokesman Dan Hill. “It seemed like good timing to be around these influencers and make sure they understand the direct and indirect benefits of global investment in the United States.”

Don’t expect a lot of policy talk from the lobbyists at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS). It is likely to be difficult to talk at all over the group’s “Spirits of Charlotte” concert Labor Day at the North Carolina Music Factory, where Camp Freddy will serenade guests. The band is a collection of rockers including Billy Morrison from Billy Idol’s band.

“It’s going to be an amazing event,” says DISCUS lobbyist David Culver.

Not everyone from K Street expects to have a good time. Manuel Ortiz, a partner with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, says the week promises to be a grind of securing convention credentials, hotel rooms and party invitations for clients.

“I’m sort of a problem solver,” he says. “Personally, I’ve never had fun at any of the conventions, and when they’re done I’ve promised myself I’m not coming back.”
Even hostess Heather Podesta concedes a lobbyist at the convention is little more than “a glorified concierge.”

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