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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.
"Members are like popcorn in the pan, some pop and some don't," said headhunter Ivan Adler of the McCormick Group, borrowing a line from his favorite movie "Jerry Maguire." "Having all those former Members in the lineup does not guarantee you the pennant."
Maybe not. But at Alston & Bird, lobbying revenue is up. It hit its peak last year with $13.7 million in Lobbying Disclosure Act fees. In 2008, it reported $8 million; 10 years before it was just $550,000. Many of the clients come from Alston's health care group led by Thomas Scully, a former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But the firm says the ex-lawmakers help, too.
"It works for two reasons," said Bob Jones, who leads the lobbying practice. "One, they're really, really good at what they do. And everyone likes each other and works together as a team. The bipartisan, bicameral blend of the superstars is attractive to clients."
When trading in former Members, "there's an ego factor," Tauzin noted. "A lot of Members have a hard time going from being the boss to playing a role in advocacy. What I love about the folks I'm working with here is they've all made that adjustment."
Dole's former firm, the now-defunct Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson and Hand, also built a practice around big names, and that didn't work out so well. "A lot of folks have great marquee names, but they're isolated," said Jones, whose hires also included former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who left for rival DLA Piper in 2009. "I don't care how great you are, but if you're in a silo, it's hard to be successful."
Dole, Tauzin, Lincoln and Pomeroy all say the vibe of the firm is collegial, not eat-what-you-kill. They revel in a bipartisanship that, they say, is absent from their former place of work.
That doesn't mean they check their partisan affiliations at the door.
Tauzin, who was a Congressional Democrat before flipping to the GOP, says he was an early force behind the recent tea party movement when, back in the late 1990s, he pushed for a bill to abolish the federal income tax. Inspired by colonists who took on the British empire over a tax on tea, the Cajun went to Boston and 40 other cities to rally support for his measure.
"We put the income tax code in a tea chest and threw it in Boston harbor," he recalled in a recent interview.
"Tea parties didn't start forming until the early 2000s," he added. "So I don't claim to be the father or the grandfather, but I think we planted the seeds."
As the tea party movement was growing, though, Tauzin spent five years running the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, where he reportedly earned $11.6 million his last year in 2010. He works with his son at Tauzin Consultants and is affiliated half-time with Alston in 2011.
He said Alston offers him a platform to pitch business to clients who also need the support of the firm's 800 lawyers. At Alston, he is registered to lobby for credit reporting company Experian, transportation firm Navistar and the New Arcadian Networks.
And he is penning his memoirs, he said, hoping to finish a first draft next month. The working title "Memoirs of a Transvesticrat" comes from a moniker Senator-turned-lobbyist John Breaux (D-La.) gave him. It will chronicle his 25 years in politics, he said, and his battle with abdominal cancer.
His doctors gave him less than 1 percent chance of surviving. They opted for an experimental treatment, using the colon-cancer drug Avastin off-label. Tauzin endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy, even after he had started at PhRMA. He said prayer and the advice of Lance Armstrong to get outside and work helped him survive. "I'd get on my backhoe and my tractors, and I'd get in the hot sun," he said.
"I'm not only alive, I'm healthier than I was when I was in Congress," added Tauzin. "I'm 69, I get on the tennis court and they haven't beat me yet."
Tauzin called his colleague Lincoln a natural at the advocacy business. But she says it's been a difficult adjustment. After losing her re-election bid in 2010, she said she met with other ex-lawmakers who had gone downtown.
"Most of them said, 'It's gonna take you a minimum of two years to make a transition," Lincoln, 51, said. "It's a different world."
Dole, who scoffs at the idea of retirement, and the other former Members have helped, she added.
Pomeroy, who also lost in 2010, explained the difference this way: "In Congress, they're lined up down the hall to see you. When you're in a law firm, you've got to make things happen."
Though Pomeroy registers to lobby, Lincoln has not - she is still under a two-year ban from lobbying her former colleagues. But she serves as a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business's campaign for sensible regulations. "If we want to grow our economy, we've got to create an environment that small businesses can thrive in," she said.
When asked whether she would ever make a return to elective office, she first said no, then laughed and said, "I don't know."
Pomeroy, though, who answers his own phone and went to the trouble of being admitted to the D.C. Bar, says he's hung up his partisan jersey for good.
"We may have had some considerable experience about the ways of Capitol Hill, but there's an awful I've got to learn about being a lawyer in Washington, D.C.," Pomeroy, 59, said. "This is my day job and my weekend job, this is what I do. I've really enjoyed trying to learn a new career."