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K Street Files: Democratic Lobbyists Still Have Value

Pryor failed in his re-election bid, but as a moderate Democrat could land a top job on K Street, Ackley writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Democrats may have taken a pummeling in this month's elections, but K Street still sees value in hiring them.  

A disproportionate number of Democrats from Capitol Hill, soon-to-be ex-lawmakers and aides alike, are looking for jobs. With the Senate flipping to GOP control and House Republicans getting an even bigger margin, Democrats lose committee slots and clout. As a result, the K Street job market may not be as robust for the party’s denizens, as Republicans have seen a rise in their value downtown .  

But there is still demand for Democrats.  

If House and Senate GOP leaders are to pass some of the lobbying community’s signature legislative measures, such as fast-track trade authority or an extension of the Export-Import Bank, they will need to woo sufficient Democrats to make up for their Republican defectors, who often hail from the tea party wing. “If the GOP is serious about legislating and getting stuff done, they may have a more compelling reason to work with Democrats,” said Julian Ha, a K Street recruiter for the search firm Heidrick & Struggles. “Folks who have to leave or decide to leave, they might still be able to provide value in terms of subject area expertise or help navigating the corridors.”  

Headhunters like Ha also said that salaries for Democrats on K Street are unlikely to plummet, especially for those with senior experience or depth in the money areas, such as banking and finance, tax policy and health care matters.  

Rob Epplin, a vice president of Gephardt Government Affairs and a former Senate GOP aide, said Democrats are “absolutely” part of the strategy, especially when working the Senate. “At some level, it’s always a hard time to find a job,” said Epplin, who spent two decades on the Hill. “You get doors slammed in your face. I’ve been cast out on my rear many times.”  

Epplin — a one-time aide to Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who lost his seat in 2008 — said Republicans and Democrats alike can appreciate the trauma of electoral losses, especially for staffers. “Somebody’s just lost a job that’s got a mortgage,” Epplin said.  

Headhunter Ivan Adler of the McCormick Group said he’s heard from up to a dozen congressional employees who are scrambling to figure out their next moves.  

The most senior and sought-after folks, such as the aides in the office of ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor , can find they experience the most rigorous and lengthy courting processes with K Street because firms do not make top hires typically on a whim. For former members, Adler said, the job market may meet the seven-figure payday they were expecting, especially if they are unwilling to sign up as registered lobbyists. “It has not been a bull market for former members,” he said. “The firm wants these people to lobby.”  

Among the losing Senate candidates, K Street would embrace moderates such as Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska. Kay Hagan’s experience on the banking panel could give the North Carolina Democrat entrée to the private sector, and if Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., loses in the December runoff , energy interests would likely come calling. Some moderate House Democrats — such as Reps. John Barrow of Georgia and Nick J. Rahall II of West Virginia — could land K Street gigs should they pursue that route.  

Rich Gold, who runs the lobby practice at Holland & Knight, said a firm like his prefers to pick up someone with a proven track record of bringing in business — such as already established lobbyists, as opposed to someone fresh off the Hill. But he’s still looking out for possible hires.  

“We are definitely opportunistic and looking at top-notch folks, from both sides of the aisle,” said Gold, a Democrat. “I don’t think Senate Democrats will be disadvantaged much.”  

Ha said résumés of senior lawmakers or staffers with experience in leadership offices float to the top of the list. Some, though, Ha said, to promote their value to K Street “may have to reinvent themselves or get creative.”  

Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.