Lobbyists Find Ways to Contribute

Posted October 10, 2008 at 6:10pm

Democratic lobbyists might be political pariahs on the presidential campaign trail, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying to help elect Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) as president.

Obama has pledged to forgo lobbyists’ political contributions and minimized their role within his campaign. Yet, for the past two years, many lobbyists have found creative ways to stay involved, volunteering on policy committees or having spouses contribute to the campaign.

More recently, Washington-area lobbyists and lawyers have looked across the Potomac to the battleground state of Virginia to put their dollars and volunteer hours to use.

While lobbyists are also prevented from contributing to the Democratic National Committee, they can donate to Democratic state parties.

Last month, more than two dozen Democratic lawyers, lobbyists and political insiders did just that, holding a major fundraiser for the Democratic Party of Virginia.

The fundraiser’s primary purpose was to raise money for get-out-the-vote efforts, which would help all Democratic candidates on the ballot in Virginia.

The Sept. 16 event at Hogan & Hartson’s Washington office raised more than $125,000.

Headlined by a pair of Virginia Democrats, Gov. Tim Kaine and Senate candidate Mark Warner, it also included a number of early Obama supporters and longtime Democratic operatives.

Co-hosts included Stan Fendley of Corning, Tom Walls of McGuireWoods Consulting, Mike House of Hogan & Hartson, John Buscher of Holland & Knight and Dwight Fettig of Arnold & Porter, among others.

Virginia Democratic Reps. Bobby Scott and Jim Moran were also in attendance.

Virginia Democratic Party spokesman Jared Leopold said the state party has more than 2,000 new donors both within Virginia and across the Potomac.

“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in volunteers here in Virginia,” Leopold said. “It doesn’t matter to us if you are a lobbyist or a college kid. The point is to get out there and knock on doors.”

While the Virginia Democratic Party was the only beneficiary of the event, it was nonetheless an outlet for those frustrated by Obama’s strictures against lobbyists contributing to the greater Democratic Party cause, said one Democrat at the event.

Co-host Andrew Rosenberg of Ogilvy Government Relations said the event was the result of people wanting to do more for the state of Virginia.

“It was done with the understanding that lobbyists couldn’t make contributions to Obama, or the DNC, but there is no reason we can’t help the Virginia Democratic Party,” Rosenberg said.

Jarvis Stewart of Stewart Partners said the event was never billed as an indirect way of giving money to help get Obama elected.

“It’s more along the lines of supporting the soon-to-be-Sen. Warner and current governor,” said Stewart, who stopped lobbying earlier this year. “If mixed in with that Sen. Obama wins, then that’s great.”

This isn’t the first time lobbyists have come out to support the Virginia Democrats.

More than 650 lobbyists and firms with political action committees have contributed to Warner’s campaign as of July, according to Senate lobbying disclosure records.

His Republican challenger, former Gov. Jim Gilmore, has received 34 political contributions from lobbyists and firms’ political action committees during that same time period, according to Senate records.

The Obama camp isn’t alone in using lobbyists and lawyers to mobilize its ground troops. Several of McCain’s top fundraisers and campaign supporters are from the Washington lobbying community, including Wayne Berman of Ogilvy Government Relations; Kirk Blalock of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock; and Peter Madigan of Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart.

The McCain campaign is also working hard to squeeze dollars out of Virginia with a Monday fundraiser in Tysons Corner headlined by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Last month’s Democratic fundraiser, however, is part of a larger effort among area lobbyists and lawyers, many of whom live in Virginia, to become active in the campaign. An informal group of them has been holding periodic brown-bag lunch meetings to get a read on the state of the election from the Obama campaign and to allow for volunteer sign-up.

The most recent get-together was at McGuireWoods’ Washington office on Friday, with Betsy Loikow, Obama’s volunteer coordinator for D.C., slated to speak.

“We’ll hear from some of our friends who are decamping to Obama offices around the state on where they are going and what they will be doing,” Varney wrote in his reminder e-mail to attendees. “Thanks for all you are doing to elect Barack Obama President of the United States!”

Unable to contribute the more traditional currency of real dollars, many lobbyists and lawyers have also turned to door-knocking and other get-out-the-vote activities like registering voters as a way to get involved in the presidential election.

“This is not about influencing policy,” said Fendley, who resides in Virginia and has helped coordinate volunteers. Obama “is really serious about that. He’s not letting lobbyists influence the policy.”

Ogilvy’s Rosenberg agrees.

“It’s a really committed group of lobbyists and lawyers and political insiders who are just really embracing the call to join the field operations as volunteers,” Rosenberg said. “It’s not a way to get in with the campaign, it’s not to get credit. They are doing it because they really want to bring about change.”