For Campbell, K Street Is a Home on the Range

Posted September 6, 2005 at 3:52pm

As a Senator, Ben Nighthorse Campbell was known for riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sporting a ponytail. Now that he’s shifted from the world’s greatest deliberative body to life on buttoned-down K Street, his look is no less distinctive: Seven months after becoming a private citizen, Campbell has taken to an everyman look of cowboy boots and jeans.

It helps that Campbell is spending most of his time working from home on an Indian reservation in southwestern Colorado.

As a senior policy adviser for the firm Holland & Knight, Campbell is crafting a practice based on his tenure in the Senate. Campbell, a Coloradan who left the Democratic Party in 1995 to become a Republican, focuses about 80 percent of his time on Indian work — a natural portfolio for an American Indian who previously chaired the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Until the new year, Campbell, like all former Members of Congress, is prohibited from lobbying his one-time colleagues on Capitol Hill or their aides. But he is free to make lobbying contacts with the administration or to provide strategic advice to clients and colleagues at the firm.

“In a nutshell,” Campbell said during a recent interview, the difference between his previous and current occupations “is having a life” versus “not having a life.”

Holland & Knight doesn’t have an office in Colorado, but Campbell arranged a deal that allows him to work out of his home on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation near Durango.

“I left office as much to get out of D.C.,” Campbell said. “I’m a Western guy. I like wide-open spaces.” And when he’s at home, he said, he has more time to spend on his jewelry making.

One immediate payoff, Campbell said, is that his cholesterol numbers have improved without the stresses of life inside the Beltway.

Rich Gold, who heads the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight, said Campbell’s arrangement is somewhat unusual, but he added that the firm often tries to accommodate its employees.

“I can’t speak to how other firms handle former elected officials, but the atmosphere here is very much egalitarian,” Gold said. “It’s a pretty flat organization, so in terms of treating a former Senator like a Senator, that’s not who we are. And that’s right up Ben’s alley.”

Gold said that although Campbell is still under the one-year ban, he has helped the firm’s clients on a number of matters before the administration, and “he has been out there tirelessly in Indian country, nearly every day drumming up business,” Gold said.

Even before recruiting Campbell, Holland & Knight already boasted a large Indian practice with lawyers and lobbyists such as Deborah Broken Rope and Philip Baker-Shenk. The firm’s recently registered tribal clients include the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota.

“I had 10 offers from different firms,” Campbell said during one of his recent visits to Holland & Knight’s D.C. offices. He chose the firm with Florida roots because it allowed him maximum flexibility, he said, and because it had a commitment to tribal representation.

Campbell said the style of the firm also suited him. “It’s not a real pushy firm,” he said. “They let me set my own schedule.”

David Devendorf, who served as chief of staff in Campbell’s Senate office, has a similar arrangement as a senior public affairs adviser. Although he travels to Washington regularly, he works out of his home office in Pueblo, Colo.

Campbell and Devendorf often meet at the Denver airport and then travel to Indian reservations in the western U.S. Other times, the duo prefers to drive those wide open spaces.

“We’re getting to be like an old married couple,” Devendorf said of the frequent road trips.

Both Campbell and Devendorf plan to make the journey from Colorado to Washington on a more frequent basis once the former Senator’s one-year ban is up.

Then, Campbell said, his lobbying efforts will be an extension of what he sought to do in Congress: to give native people a voice in the nation’s capital.

“If anything, I have become a vehicle for a lot of tribes because they knew I was here,” Campbell said.

One of the last duties Campbell participated in as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee was to preside over hearings that probed the controversial lobbying and public relations work done by Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon for several tribal governments. The lobbyists’ work is now under federal investigation, and Abramoff has been indicted on a different matter stemming from an investment in a Florida gambling casino enterprise called SunCruz.

Campbell said that the Abramoff-Scanlon scandal has made some American Indian tribes more wary of hiring outsiders to represent them. But, Campbell said, most lobbyists do have the respect of Indians.

“There are thousands who are doing a good job,” Campbell said. Of the ones who run afoul, he said: “Those guys will be brought to justice.”

Some tribal leaders have said they fear that Congress could adopt an overly paternalistic role over tribes in the wake of the Abramoff matter. And Campbell said that part of his job is to monitor any bill that could interfere with tribal sovereignty.

Another measure that Campbell and American Indian tribes are watching is a draft bill circulated by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) that seeks to limit tribal gaming enterprises off Indian reservations.

“Indians worry about that,” Campbell said.

But for people who think American Indian lobbying is only about casinos, Campbell needs only a few minutes to make the opposite case.

One of the major growth areas he sees for his practice is to link private industry with Indian tribes as the tribes seek to diversify their business interests. Hotels, investment firms and other major conglomerates are looking for paths onto the reservation.

“They think there’s an opportunity, but they don’t know how to talk to Indian country,” Campbell said. And that’s where he comes in, he said.

About his future lobbying efforts, Campbell said, “Once a Senator, always a Senator. I will have a direct voice with other Senators. It’s a professional courtesy. You can’t vote, but you can still have a pretty strong voice.”

Campbell said that his colleagues in the Senate regarded him as an expert when it came to Indian country legislation, and he doesn’t perceive any lost credibility after switching to his new role.

Campbell added that when he first left office, he went through a kind of withdrawal.

“I would wake up on Saturday morning, and I would feel guilty because I didn’t have two speeches to give, a town hall meeting and 200 miles to cover on the road,” he said. “Suddenly, you get to stay home or go to a movie with a grandkid.”

Although he said he has taken well to private life, GOP officials in Colorado would like Campbell to run for governor. Kate Dando, Campbell’s former press secretary and another member of the Holland & Knight team, said that “Campbell is giving it some thought” and added that he will make a decision within the next few months. Still, she said, “he is very happy at Holland & Knight.”

Gold, the lobbying practice leader, said several of the firm’s top figures have made a bid for office, including Bill McBride, who lost a Democratic primary to challenge Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in 2002. But, he said, “I don’t want to speak for Ben, I suspect he’s pretty happy here.”