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‘Dingell Bar’ Nervous About a Possible Loss

The gavel fight between House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) for chairmanship of the Commerce panel is being watched as closely on K Street as it is in the Democratic Caucus.

Since he was elected more than half a century ago, Dingell has amassed a formidable K Street presence. His network spans the health care, energy, manufacturing and telecommunications industry sectors.

A Waxman victory could mean sweeping changes for the dozens of D.C. lobbyists who have made their business from their close ties to the longtime chairman.

The business community’s support for Dingell was on display Wednesday morning at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser he hosted along with Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) to help newly elected Members retire their debt. Organizers announced the event raised $400,000.

The impressive dollar tally wasn’t surprising to many downtown, who know that Dingell has been trying to recruit new Members to help him secure the seat.

“There has been a large group of what is called the ‘Dingell Bar’ of former Dingell staffers out in the private sector who are probably nervous,” said one Democratic lobbyist.

Adds a former Dingell staffer: “We’re certainly getting lots of calls offering help from every kind of group imaginable. These are people calling who have been longtime friends of the committee and the chairman and just want to help.”

For many, it’s not just about loyalty to Dingell.

Should Waxman be successful in his attempt to oust Dingell, it would force companies into a far more defensive lobbying posture, since Waxman is likely to assert far stricter regulations against industry.

And while walking softly is the norm in leadership races, the National Mining Association is one industry group openly supporting Dingell’s retention of the chairmanship. The auto industry is also pushing for him to keep the position.

“It strikes us that Chairman Dingell is more likely coming from Detroit to have a sensitivity to the current economic plight of the country when he looks at the various serious issues before the committee than Mr. Waxman, who is from Beverly Hills,” NMA spokesman Luke Popovich said last week.

While Waxman certainly has support among some constituencies like the environmental lobby, he doesn’t have the same K Street tentacles as Dingell. Julian Haywood, who is at Heather Podesta + Partners, is one of his only former aides downtown. Haywood spent eight years as counsel to Waxman on the Oversight Committee.

“Clients look at this as losing a perceived centrist,” said one Democratic lobbyist. “Waxman is just unapproachable.”

Dingell, on the other hand, has tremendous bench strength downtown.

Among former aides with strong ties to the 82-year-old lawmaker are John Orlando, his former chief of staff now at CBS Inc.; Thomas Ryan of Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon, who served as Dingell’s chief counsel in the mid-1980s; former Dingell Chief of Staff Marda Robillard of Van Scoyoc Associates Inc.; and Alan Roth, former staff director and chief counsel to the committee, who is now at US Telecom.

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