Brian Pomper couldn’t contain his wonder, or astonishment, at what would ordinarily have been a decidedly mundane chore for a D.C. lobbyist.
“I’m wearing a suit for the first time,” he boomed, as he made his way toward Capitol Hill last week. “I haven’t worn a suit since March of last year.”
Pomper, a former Democratic Senate aide and a partner at the lobbying and law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, sounded downright giddy for his first in-person meeting with a lawmaker in ages. It’s a scene that’s cropping up all over K Street, the hub of the Washington influence sector.
After more than a year of virtual-only advocacy because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the freshly vaccinated lobbying set is reemerging for real-life meetings on the Hill and in-person fundraisers, as well as meals and sit-downs to reconnect with clients and co-workers. Still, many say they expect the Zoom life to carry on, as the industry wrestles with the future of lobbying and seeks to balance the grind of face time with the irreplaceable intimacy of face-to-face encounters.
“Over the last year, we learned a lot about our business, and one of the things we learned is how important it is to see people in person,” said Brendan Dunn, another Akin Gump lobbyist and onetime top adviser to Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell.
Dunn, who has attended recent meetings in congressional office buildings, said the logistics of venturing around Capitol Hill and downtown D.C. have become even more burdensome than before the pandemic. Increased health and security protocols require a congressional aide to escort lobbyists around the hallways, for example.
“Functionally, it’s a real challenge,” Dunn said, leading the industry to ponder: Does it ever go back to February 2020?
“There is a certain staying-on-task that was associated with the past year, something positive about it,” Dunn added. “But people are going to have to figure out how to balance it: taking the good of the last year and balancing it against the obvious need for in-person interaction.”
Dunn, Pomper and other lobbyists across the political spectrum said Republicans, some of whom held in-person fundraisers last fall, were by and large returning to in-real-life meetings more quickly. But new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the subsequent lifting by June 11 of D.C. capacity limitations on restaurants and other gathering spots — including Nationals Park — mean lobbyists of both parties are filling up their calendars faster than they anticipated.
Though virtual events still dominate, Democrats and Republicans have scheduled real-life activities, including destination fundraisers and meetings, in the coming weeks and months.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has slated Oct. 29 and 30 in Miami for its chairman’s issues conference. And individual Democrats are getting back in the swing with Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria setting an event for June 15 at Agua 301, a restaurant in D.C.’s Yards Park, and Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes planning a July 9 event at the Delamar hotel in Greenwich, among others.
“I feel like all of a sudden this all opened up completely,” said Cristina Antelo, a Democratic lobbyist who runs Ferox Strategies.
A week ago, she said, she was at a fundraiser golfing with members of the Blue Dog Coalition and planned to travel over the weekend to South Carolina for another fundraising event. A recent client meeting took her to San Antonio.
“I’m fully vaccinated now, and I’m happy to do it,” Antelo said.
She and her colleagues, including Republican lobbyist Mark Williams, have started getting back to their offices, and she said by next month she thought the firm would be back more fully, though she hopes for a combination of in-person and virtual for lobbying and fundraising going forward.
Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli said lawmakers and candidates have saved big money by not having to rent event spaces or pay for food and drink, and may want to keep that up. Far-flung union members or executives who don’t live in the D.C. region have also grown accustomed to logging on for virtual events they might never have been able to attend before, and he expects those will continue.
But, Fraioli said, “It’s going to open back up. We have some people that are checking into Nats games.”
“Life’s getting ready to change,” he added.
Happy Zoom is ‘normalized’
Some lobbyists are reluctant to head out.
Kathryn Lehman, a former Republican leadership aide and a lobbyist at Holland & Knight, said she prefers her at-home office setup and not having to commute in traffic. The rules and protocols of meeting on the Hill with congressional aides, she said, don’t make for a good use of anyone’s time.
“Why would you put that burden on a staffer?” she said, adding that virtual “fly-in” advocacy days are “1,000 times” easier than traipsing from Hill office to Hill office.
“I’m happy that the use of Zoom has been normalized,” she said.
Lehman is among the majority of lobbyists, 87 percent, who said Zoom advocacy is here to stay, according to a recent poll by the Public Affairs Council, a trade group for public affairs executives.
Doug Pinkham, president of the council, said he was surprised in that same survey that two-thirds of government affairs professionals reported that their teams could do their jobs just as well working remotely.
“There are certain advantages,” he said, to logging in to work from home. “If you’ve got a long commute, like I do, which means getting up at 5:15 in the morning, then you have more time with family or to mow the lawn.”
Still, he said, advocacy requires some element of showing up. His group is planning an in-person conference this fall.
And as more lobbyists shed the comfort of their house slippers and return to the shoe-leather version of their job, it’ll be increasingly harder for those who want to remain all virtual.
“No doubt there’s Zoom fatigue,” said Paul Thornell, a lobbyist with Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.
Thornell, a Democrat, said he had yet to attend in-person meetings on the Hill but does work from the firm’s officially closed offices as needed. He expects things to open up more by July 4 and even more so after Labor Day.
‘We’re not desk people’
Most successful lobbyists are, by nature or professional necessity, social creatures.
“If it was a desk job, I would’ve been an accountant,” said Ivan Zapien, a partner at Hogan Lovells. “We’re not desk people.”
He gleefully relayed some of his recent return to K Street: breakfast on the patio of the Willard Hotel, an outdoor lunch at Central Michel Richard and a meeting on the Hill.
“I thought I would just see tumbleweeds in the hallways, but I recognized some faces,” he quipped.
The firm isn’t yet requiring its employees to come back, though a spokesman said it expected most D.C. personnel to return by September with flexibility. Zapien said he felt comfortable returning after his 13-year-old son qualified for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Other lobbyists, he said, are more reluctant to jump back into the grueling schedule of fundraisers and meetings.
“I think some people are like, ‘Oh no, not again,’” Zapien said.
Stephen Ciccone, the group vice president of government affairs for Toyota Motor North America, has been thinking a lot about how to blend his company’s virtual advocacy strategies with its return to three-dimensional lobbying.
“Historically, we have thought about quality of work and quality of life as a trade-off, and as we come out of this pandemic, we can make both of them better,” he said.
Some of his seven D.C.-based employees are back in the office at least part of the time, he said.
Recently, Ciccone took a company executive around the Hill for meetings. And he has attended in-person fundraisers, hosted lunches with his team and other lobbyists from the auto industry.
His office was quick to pivot to virtual last year, organizing online sessions with lawmakers and governors that he said will likely continue. But, Ciccone said, something was missing.
“There is so much that is lost when you’re on a screen,” he said. “When we had our executive in town, there was so much energy and excitement around the work we were doing, the meetings.”
“Frankly, the work is more joyful,” Ciccone added. “Now that people have been largely vaccinated, the competitive advantage is to be out there first.”