Dean to Make Overtures to Lobbyists at Breakfast Today

Posted March 9, 2005 at 6:41pm

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean meets today with Democratic lobbyists — a group that gave Dean the presidential candidate a mostly tepid reception last year.

Dean is scheduled to meet with about 100 lobbyists and strategists over breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel, in a two-hour event that a DNC spokeswoman billed as an informal “get to know you” session.

Several Democratic lobbyists said they expect Dean to be greeted by open — but wary — minds.

“When you don’t have the White House and neither chamber of Congress, any DNC chair would have a challenge fundraising in the business community,” said Paul Equale, a Democratic consultant attending the breakfast. “Howard Dean’s challenge is exacerbated by the perception that during the presidential campaign, he ran an anti-Washington campaign and, until a week or two ago, it seemed his relationship with principals in Congress was less than warm.”

The breakfast meeting closes a week in which the newly installed party chief has made his most public outreach to Congress since taking the job, meeting separately with House Members and Senators. Dean, a former governor of Vermont, is also fresh off a whirlwind tour of heavily Republican states.

DNC spokeswoman Laura Gross said that Dean had no agenda for today’s breakfast and would not make a direct fundraising pitch.

Rather, Dean will focus on introducing himself to a group he hasn’t worked closely with in the past, she said.

“These are leaders in the Democratic Party and Gov. Dean wants to get to know them,” Gross said. “He’s putting people to work.”

Today’s breakfast is sponsored by the Democratic Business Council, an arm of the DNC that raises funds from corporate interests. The group, formerly chaired by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), is currently searching for a new head.

Even Dean, a noted grass-roots fundraiser, may have a tough time prying contributions from business lobbyists, who said the DNC is last on their list of hard-money beneficiaries, after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and individual Members’ PACs.

“Howard has this incredible list who will walk on hot coals for him, but the challenge is to translate those folks into party-givers,” said Lynn Cutler, a Holland and Knight lobbyist, Dean ally, and former vice chairwoman of the DNC. “Most of us [lobbyists] need to send our funds, either personal or PAC, to the Hill.”

As an example of the competition for hard dollars Dean will face from within his own party, one lobbyist, who asked not to be identified, pointed to the recent efforts of former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.).

The lobbyist said Kerry hosted about 60 people for an event in his Georgetown home Monday night.

“He wasn’t indelicate enough to ask for money on the spot,” said the lobbyist, who attended the function. “But it’s clear he’s going to make his presence known as a party leader.”

Meanwhile, as Republicans in Congress rack up victories favored by business interests — such as the class-action reform approved by the House and Senate last month and the bankruptcy bill now nearing Senate passage — Dean may have trouble convincing business lobbyists that the Democratic Party is the best place to park their cash.

“These wins are coonskins the Republicans are putting up on the wall to please the business community,” Equale said. “And it’s certainly going to help their fundraising.”

But Dean is not totally without a Beltway footprint. While he ran for president as an outsider, the former Vermont governor counted on Washington insiders to make up nearly a third of his top-tier fundraising team.

Cutler said his personal appeal will continue to win him supporters here.

“I think the hyperbole about the difficulty Howard will have is just that: hyperbole,” Cutler said. “People will like him very much, and that’s what it comes down to in the end.”