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Street Talk: Farming a Team of Former Members Does Not Guarantee a Win

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Former Members of Congress such as former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole are highly valued by clients who hope to build connections with official Washington. However, gathering support from former Members does not always guarantee wins.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) held court on a recent afternoon with a dozen ambassadors from all over the world.

It seemed like high-level diplomacy, but the luncheon roundtable discussion on the upcoming elections gave Dole and his colleagues a chance to delicately pitch their firm to a potentially big-paying foreign clientele.

"I don't believe there's any other law firm that has the firepower we have," Dole, 89, told the ambassadors in a large, windowless conference room in the D.C. office of Alston & Bird.

He dished about a recent meal he had shared with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a top contender for the vice presidential slot. "I did detect some interest on his part," Dole deadpanned. "If someone asked him, I think he'd say yes before the other person got it all out."

And though he made no attempt to hide his preference for Mitt Romney in the White House contest, he recalled that President Barack Obama had visited him last year when the Republican recuperated from knee surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Clients, both foreign and domestic, are willing to pay handsomely to retain lobbyists with such insider scoop and top-tier connections. And there's no question that former Members of Congress bring with them access and gravitas.

In the ambassadors' meeting, Dole was surrounded by Alston & Bird's other big names: former Agriculture Chairman Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), former House Energy and Commerce Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and ex-Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.). The event offered a rare glimpse into what ex-Members do after they make the move into lobbying.

Almost every big K Street practice has at least one ex-lawmaker on the payroll. But Alston & Bird has pursued what it calls an all-star model, betting that its marquee names will bring in business even in a tough economy.

It's a high-risk strategy, say other downtown lobby executives. Many firms shy away from hiring political luminaries, especially en masse. Former Members, even if they work only part time, do not come cheap. The going rate for a former Senator is usually $1 million. And they often have trouble adjusting to life off the Hill, some balk at the notion of registering to lobby, and others are reluctant to set aside the trappings of public office such as a doting staff.

And in an increasingly competitive K Street, one where grass-roots and social media activism are becoming more important, former lawmakers do not ensure success.

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