Months after Cantorland was turned upside down by their boss’ stunning primary defeat, two key members of the ex-majority leader’s team are returning to the workforce, opening a lobbying firm with another prominent former Hill staffer.
Steve Stombres — a longtime chief of staff to ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — is starting a government affairs shop with Kyle Nevins, Cantor's former deputy chief of staff, and John O’Neill, a former counsel and policy director for Trent Lott when he was the Senate GOP whip.
The firm, Harbinger Strategies, is still coming together, but the partners say they’ll officially be open for business by Jan. 1. “We’re on the sublet tour of Washington, D.C.,” Stombres said of finding office space.
He's already hunting for clients, and said Nevin and O’Neill will officially join him at the start of 2015.
Nevins and O’Neill are currently lobbyists working for Capitol Counsel, and will pick up right where they left off when they join Harbinger. But Stombres will have to wait until August for his House leadership lobbying ban to expire, though he can still lobby senators and rank-and-file House members. Stombres said he’ll also be working with Nevins and O’Neill on messaging strategies, careful to note they “fully intend” on complying with the law.
The partners are trying to sell their shop as a results-oriented boutique focusing on tax, financial services and defense issues. They note their bicameral experience, and they are making the pitch that they know how leadership thinks and what drives leaders to make decisions.
“We’ve been in the room with the biggest of the big,” Stombres told CQ Roll Call. “We actually know what works and what doesn’t.”
Stombres served as Cantor’s chief of staff from 2001 to August 2014, and he says the lessons he learned from the Virginia Republican will carry over to the new business.
“Eric’s philosophy was to try to assemble a team of smart, aggressive people that would achieve results,” Stombres said.
Harbinger will start with just three employees. “We don’t want to get to be a really enormous shop,” Stombres said, noting they are “certainly open to looking for new talent.”
Nevins told CQ Roll Call that part of the story of Harbinger, which will be a Republican-focused shop, was that they were experimenting with a new lobbying firm structure. “This is a new model for K Street,” Nevins said. “Small has been done — I think small, leadership, bicameral has not been done.”
Nevins said part of the reason he was motivated to jump ship from Capitol Counsel were the decision-making opportunities afforded by a small firm — and the chance to partner with Stombres.
“The silver lining in Eric losing was that I got the opportunity to work with Steve again,” Nevins said.
Nevins’ first day working as the body man for then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt — on Jan. 3, 2003 — was Stombres’ first day as a leadership member’s chief of staff. (Cantor was Blunt’s chief deputy whip.) As Nevins climbed the ranks, he and Stombres became close, with Nevins moving to Cantor’s office at the start of 2009.
Likewise, O’Neill became close with Nevins during their time at Capitol Counsel. When Nevins came over to the lobbying firm in March 2013, O’Neill was an instant mentor, and the two share a number of clients.
So as Stombres figured out what he was going to do after Cantor lost his primary to now-Rep. Dave Brat, Nevins was the connection that brought all three of them together.
“It was just quickly apparent that this was the perfect move for all three of us,” Nevins said. “So here we are.”
O’Neill, who is a partner at Capitol Counsel, brings the Senate résumé to the firm, as well as experience working on financial issues at the Senate Finance Committee. He said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work at a “smaller, simpler firm with two guys that I just have the highest respect for.”
“Increasingly, so much of what’s done in the tax world, I think leadership has a bigger impact than ever before,” O’Neill said. He said the firm’s strength would be its ability to “synthesize” the committee world, and the leadership world.
“Being able to see both with perspective I do think is helpful,” he said.
In a testament to the connections the three have on the Hill, Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C. told CQ Roll Call via email that, in his years working closely with them in the House, “Steve and Kyle were consummate professionals who had an uncanny ability to read the pulse of the chambers and think three steps ahead on any given situation. Together with John's vast Senate experience, they have an unparalleled view of the legislative process."
Speaker John A. Boehner's chief of staff, Mike Sommers, was also eager to pour on the praise.
"Stombres, Nevins and O’Neill are three of the best in the business," he said. "They will bring to the table experienced unmatched in Washington advocacy circles."
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