Lobbyists Pushing for Storm Relief

Posted September 1, 2008 at 6:12pm

Lobbyists with ties to the Gulf states are doing double duty this week in Minnesota, working their typical convention contacts but also paying close attention to Hurricane Gustav back home.

Local Gulf state residents are also in town to press for more funding for the beleaguered region; at least five people from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation’s Equity and Inclusion Campaign are expected to meet with convention delegates.

The group had expected 10 people to attend the Republican convention, but some decided to head back to the Gulf Coast because of the storm.

The lobbying push comes after 40 representatives blanketed the Democratic National Convention in Denver, meeting with lawmakers and the Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi delegation, urging the states to work together instead of competing against one another, said Paul Braithwaite, a lobbyist at Podesta Group who is leading the firm’s efforts on behalf of the foundation.

“Before this hurricane, we thought there might be a second stimulus package this fall,” said Braithwaite, who is in Washington but is working on the campaign with Podesta colleagues Randall Gerard and Katie Beck, both of whom are in Minneapolis. “Now it is more likely than not.”

For the foundation, which is hoping to partner with another group on fundraising or a telethon, that means trying to convince Congress to include money for the most vulnerable parts of the population.

“Progress is slow and it is all about resources,” said Braithwaite, who helped another client, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, successfully press for $3 billion in housing assistance last fall.

He expects to go to Congress this month to lobby for more funding and try to impress upon the presidential candidates to include hurricane recovery as part of the first 100 days of the next administration.

Braithwaite was hardly alone in his Gulf Coast efforts.

Other Washington lobbyists kept busy Monday checking in with clients by phone and looking for opportunities this fall to get additional federal funding for any flood ravaged areas.

This isn’t the first time lobbyists have stepped in to help during a Gulf Coast crisis.

Following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, several lobbyists with ties to the area, including Gloria Dittus of Dittus Communications, helped sponsor fundraising events and even shuttled a busload of supplies to the area.

But the quick response by authorities this time left many lobbyists with Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama connections feeling more confident than in the past.

“The hard work by the state, locals and the Louisiana delegation was done over the past three years getting funding and projects for the improved levee protection,” said Jeffrey Brooks of Adams and Reese, which represents several Louisiana-based organizations, including Louisiana State University, Louisiana Primary Care Association and the LSU Agricultural Center.

Brooks said that one has to look no further than the federal funding the Louisiana delegation obtained to build safe houses so that pump operators can stay on site during flooding.

For Brooks, priority No. 1 right now is making sure no one is in danger.

“We checked in with clients and told them we are here, but most importantly we told them to be safe,” he said.

That approach appears to be the norm among K Streeters with Gulf Coast ties.

With Gustav hitting Louisiana on Monday afternoon, lobbyists say their focus is on the most immediate needs, not any long-term funding strategy.

“The focus is on the people right now,” said Hunter Johnston, a lobbyist who represents Jefferson Parish, which was hit by Hurricane Katrina. “You can’t access the damage at all. Clearly the [Bush] administration is all over this.”

Still, Johnston said there is concern with the western bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, where a variety of projects are in different stages of completion. For him, it’s not just about clients. Johnston’s mother-in-law and sister both live in Louisiana and have been evacuated.

“Everything seems to be going as well as can be expected,” said Jan Schoonmaker of Van Scoyoc Associates, who touched base with most of his Louisiana-based clients on Monday.

Schoonmaker, who represents the Ochsner Health System, a network of seven hospitals and 35 health centers in southeast Louisiana, has been working — so far unsuccessfully — to get federal funding for the hospitals to help cover the dramatic increase in health care costs in Louisiana.

Schoonmaker said he hopes Gustav could help remove the White House’s objection to the funding request.

“The price for hospitals has risen dramatically,” Schoonmaker said. “As a result, many hospitals in New Orleans are in the hole.”