In ‘Ground Game’ Election, K Street Hits the Road

Posted October 27, 2004 at 6:30pm

When former Rep. Bob Walker (R-Pa.) heads back to Pennsylvania to campaign for President Bush this weekend, he will confront a posse of Democratic lobbyists dispatched from Washington by Democratic operative Robert Healy to help support the presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Walker and Healy are unlikely adversaries: The Pennsylvania natives are partners at one of Washington’s most successful lobbying firms, Wexler Walker Public Policy Associates.

Such is life on K Street these days: With the White House and Senate up for grabs, and House Democrats just 12 seats shy of a regaining the majority in the chamber, Republicans and Democrats are relying more than ever on their partisan allies on K Street to help turn out the vote in what is expected to be one of the closest elections ever.

It’s not unusual for Washington lobbyists to hit the campaign trail for their favorite candidates this time of year.

But with this year’s race for the White House and Congress coming down to which party can turn out the most voters to the polls, more lobbyists than ever seem to be hitting the campaign trail.

As the Wexler Walker example shows, the political skirmishing out on the campaign trail can make for an interesting dynamic back in Washington.

“We have always encouraged our professional staff to get out and work on a campaign, especially after Congress goes out of session,” said Anne Wexler, the founder of the firm. “We are a bipartisan firm and people want an opportunity to do their bit.”

Dozens of other lobbying firms, corporations and trade associations find themselves in similarly prickly situations.

At the law firm Preston Gates Ellis Rouvelas Meeds, Republican lobbyist Paul Stimers is working to help elect his former boss, Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), while fellow Democrat Chad See is helping his one-time boss, Sen. Patty Murray (D), fend off Nethercutt’s challenge.

At Freddie Mac, Republican lobbyist Brian Smith is going to North Carolina to work for the Senate campaign of GOP Rep. Richard Burr, while Democrat Clarke Camper is flying to South Dakota to work for Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

And at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, Democratic lobbyist Patrick O’Brien is spending his weekends volunteering for Kerry, while his boss, Bob Rusbuldt, makes the rounds of television and radio stations as a surrogate for the Bush campaign.

Another 15 lobbyists at the insurance agents’ Washington trade association have volunteered to help out the Republican National Committee on the ground in the days before the election.

“We have all the bases covered,” said Rusbuldt, the trade group’s CEO. “If you are a corporation, labor union or government affairs operation and you have lobbyists, why wouldn’t you be involved in the grandest race of all? Why would you ignore the number one decision-maker in the country?”

One all-Republican lobbying firm, Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, is shutting down entirely so its lobbyists can hit the campaign trail.

More than half of the lobbyists at the Wexler Group and the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America are hitting the trail in the campaign’s final days.

“The days of people being in a hotel ballroom in Washington on election night are over,” said Bob Hickmott, a Democratic lobbyist with the Smith-Free Group who is heading to Colorado to work for state Attorney General Ken Salazar’s campaign for Senate.

His partner Sarah Dumont has been in South Carolina working for GOP Rep. Jim DeMint’s Senate campaign, while founding partner Jim Free, a Democrat, has been helping the Florida Senate campaign of Betty Castor.

For the most part, the campaigns use the lobbyists to turn out their voters at the polls on Election Day.

Figuring out which voters to motivate “is just about done now, so it’s all about revving up turnout,” said Marc Lampkin, a Republican lobbyist with Quinn Gillespie & Associates who has spent the past few weeks working the Republican suburbs of Milwaukee, for Bush. “It’s phone calls, a few signs, organizing stuff and planning for the last get-out-the-vote effort.”

Meanwhile, Lampkin’s Democratic partner at Quinn Gillespie, Bruce Andrews, has spent the past several weekends in the suburbs of Philadelphia working to motivate Democratic voters to support Kerry.

Some lobbyists have spent longer stints on the campaign trail.

Last year, Ed Gillespie took a year-long leave from the firm he helped found to serve as chairman of the RNC.

Shorter-lived campaign efforts are being coordinated by the presidential campaigns and the national political parties, along with the help of partisan lobbyists downtown.

For example, former Rep. John Thune has relied on National Republican Senatorial Committee aide Ryan Horn, Senate Republican aide Elizabeth Keys and GOP lobbyist Jeff Munk to recruit K Street volunteers to help him defeat Daschle.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has coordinated efforts to send Democratic lobbyists to the state to help Daschle.

“[W]e are encouraging people to spend as much time in S.D. as possible as part of the effort to get out the vote,” said David Rudd, the DSCC’s executive director, in an e-mail plea to K Street lobbyists and other Democrats on Tuesday. “We simply must give our candidate the final push by joining together and doing all we can to win the ground war.”

One of those heading to South Dakota is Paul Equale, a Democratic strategic consultant close to Daschle.

Equale, who is leaving Washington this afternoon, will split his time between encouraging voters to go to the polls and monitoring the vote at polling stations on Election Day.

On Sunday, he will attend a training session sponsored by the Democratic National Committee in Rapid City for its temporary election officials.

“For the first several days, we will be involved in get-out-the-vote, then I put on my legal hat,” said Equale, who is bringing along his 14-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, a sophomore at Churchill High School in Potomac, Md.

Gabrielle Equale, who has known Daschle since she was a young child, is working on a class project about the election.

“What better laboratory than to make a different in a key Senate race?” her father said.

Critics say that work by Equale and other Democratic and Republican operatives is more than just a good learning experience. Rather, it gives them an opportunity to curry favor with the same lawmakers whom they will later ask for help on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a way to give candidates something in addition to a political contribution,” said Larry Noble of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “And when it is time to discuss legislation with the campaign, it is remembered.”

But lobbyists like Wexler said that the campaign work does not have “a dramatic affect on their ability to lobby.”

“They are not strategic workers. They are driving vans and helping get out the vote,” she said. “They are just doing the grunt work like everybody else.”

“We are all politicians — we are all political people. It’s what we do,” added Wexler Walker’s Healy. “I don’t think that anyone is sitting around saying, ‘If I go to the 3rd district in Pennsylvania, something is really going to come out of it that will help me in my lobbying business.’”

A senior partner at the firm, Healy has spent the past few months helping the Kerry campaign and the DNC recruit lobbyists and other Democratic operatives to lend a hand in key states and districts.

“I act as a problem-solver, a coordinator, a contract person, an expeditor,” he said.

A native of Port Allegany, Pa., Healy has steered lobbyists to Pennsylvania, South Dakota, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Florida and Colorado, among other states.

Among the Democratic lobbyists whom Healy has steered to Pennsylvania this weekend is Sena Fitzmaurice, a principal at Wexler Walker.

Fitzmaurice drove to Allentown on Wednesday to work line security at an afternoon event with Teresa Heinz Kerry. After that, she will encourage Democratic voters to show up at the polls on Tuesday.

On the other side of the office, Walker said he was heading to Pennsylvania this weekend to “do some last-minute campaigning.”

Joining Walker in the Keystone State this weekend will be three other Republican lobbyists at the firm, Peter Holran, Monty Tripp and Thomas Carpenter.

“For me, it’s just fun to be out on the campaign trail,” Walker said. “Elections are important, and I will contribute in any way I can.”