When Clients Come Calling
Blue-Chip Firms Eager to Sign Former Barney Frank Aide
Robert Raben doesn’t want your money. Not if he doesn’t agree with your cause.
“If the work is about flat-out opposing someone I agree with, I’m not going to be that great at it, and I’m not going to take your money if it’s something I’m not going to be great at,” he said.
And if he does take your business, the Democratic lobbyist doesn’t promise to lobby — in the traditional sense — on your behalf. The former counsel to now-House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said he has “clients who don’t want [Frank] to do what he’s doing. But the terms of my relationship with them is to give them advice on what is doable and how they ought to comport themselves in the big scheme.” That is, not necessarily to press Frank to come around to his client’s position.
Welcome to lobbying under the new order.
At a different time on Capitol Hill, Raben’s approach might have marginalized him. But these days, as corporate interests scramble to make up ground with House Democrats they neglected for years, he’s more in demand than ever.
Raben is not new to the game — he built a one-man operation into a successful all-Democratic lobbying practice under Republican rule mostly by helping progressive nonprofits build odd-couple alliances across the ideological divide.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Reproductive Rights, end-of-life advocates Compassion & Choices and the Free Speech Coalition, made up of porn industry companies, formed the core of his practice, which focused on constitutional legal issues.
Now, clients of a different stripe are knocking on his door. He recently inked contracts with General Electric, Home Depot and Pfizer. Deals with two more corporate clients are all but done, and many more are in the pipeline.
Raben finds his profile rising in subtler ways as well. On Friday, he made his second appearance in as many weeks on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” his first turns on the talking head circuit.
And he recently kicked off a series of evening policy briefings at his Capitol Hill home. Frank headlined the first, then Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas). The small events feature a jumble of people from the nonprofit and corporate worlds, only some of whom are clients, and notably, no money changes hands.
Raben said he still is figuring out how to navigate the new dynamic. After the November elections restored Democrats’ majority status in Congress, his phones — oddly, he says — stayed quiet for weeks. But with the new year, “it has changed dramatically.”
“There’s a real learning curve for both of us,” he said, referring the new crop of clients. “Democrats aren’t a different species, but we have different rhythms.”
Before starting talks with the corporate crowd, Raben said he had a series of conversations with his former Congressional patrons, primarily Frank, seeking something akin to permission to take on the new business.
“Our relationship is changing,” he said. “So it was really helpful to have conversations with him and others about what the new opportunities are and what it meant, and he was very, very helpful.”
Frank gave Raben his start in politics. The Miami native had come to Washington, D.C., to work as a lawyer at the firm Arnold & Porter but found the office a bad fit. In 1993, after “an 11-second interview” with Frank, Raben joined the liberal stalwart’s personal office, working on fish industry and judiciary issues. After the Republican revolution of 1994 swept Democrats from power, Frank’s seniority on the Judiciary panel leapt, handing him the ranking member slot on the subcommittee on the Constitution.
Raben moved to the committee staff and quickly found himself on the front lines of battle with the new majority. Most of the policy items in the “Contract with America” — the balanced budget amendment, affirmative action repeal, partial-birth-abortion ban and a constitutional amendment requiring a two-thirds vote for a tax increase — were handed off to the subcommittee. “We were bereft of staff and overwhelmed, but it was a tremendous learning in experience about how you can do hard work quickly,” he said.
He stayed with the committee for seven years before getting confirmed, in 1999, as assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s office of legislative affairs.
At noon on Jan. 20, 2001, he walked out of the building, for the last time, with outgoing Attorney General Janet Reno. “I walked around the inaugural stuff,” he said, and, with no plans for his future, headed to Rome to meet a friend. “She picked me up at the airport on one of those Vespas, and I became the only male ever, in the history of Italy, to ride behind a woman on a Vespa. We spent four days eating salami and buying Hugo Boss shoes.”
When he returned, he did a circuit of interviews with law and lobbying firms that went nowhere. “It was not a good time,” he said. Sitting at home, he received a call from one of the fishermen from Southeastern Massachusetts he had worked with for years on Frank’s staff, and — because they continued to call and he continued to help — during his time at the Justice Department.
Those scallop fishermen — organized as the Fisheries Survival Fund — became his first client. Then, when the Recording Industry Association of America got wind that Napster wanted Raben to help open its Washington office, the music industry group signed him up, too.
In his second year, he made his first hire: Nancy Buermeyer, who had been with the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian political group. The firm grew modestly for the next several years, until last year, when he brought on five additional lobbyists and opened a Hispanic advocacy arm called LATINStrategies. According to Senate records compiled by CQ PoliticalMoneyLine, in 2006 the Raben Group earned $1.815 million in lobbying revenue, roughly nine times what Raben himself pulled in after starting the business just five years before.
Raben said his success, even in a hostile environment, has come from finding points of agreement between camps that are generally opposed — a model not likely to change as he adds corporate clients with exposure under the new regime. To help the ACLU fight back against provisions in the USA PATRIOT Act, for example, Raben forged alliances with David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Grover Norquist, and former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who is, in fact, an independent contractor with the firm.
Raben acknowledges the role of fundraising in the process — he has contributed nearly $40,000 out of his own pocket since starting the firm, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, and this cycle the firm has agreed to coordinate fundraising from the gay and lesbian communities for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Raben is openly gay.)
But, he said, to press his point, he’d rather rely on smarts, votes, coalitions and humor. To show he’s dead-serious about the humor factor, he has written it into all contracts with the firm’s clients. The last condition of the agreements reads: “The parties agree to retain their senses of humor.”
“I wouldn’t be able to get through it if I couldn’t laugh at the stuff that comes up,” he said.