Google’s Top Lobbyist Shows It’s Hip to Be a Nerd

Posted June 11, 2010 at 4:14pm

Pablo Chavez is a complete geek. A video-game-playing, computer-programming geek.

And he now rules the school.

A former staffer to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Chavez was installed last year as Google’s top downtown lobbyist, replacing Alan Davidson, who became the tech giant’s public policy director for the Americas. In his new role, Chavez oversees a half-dozen lobbyists responsible for carrying out Google’s unique style of influence peddling, a still-developing approach that downtown sources describe as a mixture of techie competence, arrogance and, increasingly, politics.

“They’re into hiring people who are issue experts, who can manage the government affairs aspect and the political aspect,” a technology consultant said. “Pablo has shown that he can do both. He started off as a public policy nerd and has grown into a more sophisticated leader on the government relations side.”

Five years after it first set up its lobby shop in Washington, D.C., Google is finally coming into its own on K Street, sources say, shedding some of the company’s perceived sense of legislative and regulatory entitlement for a more humble approach, while increasingly adding some political heft to get the job done.

The D.C. office’s success, sources say, rests largely on how well Chavez executes his new leadership responsibilities.

“They were notorious for not returning phone calls and had a reputation for pie-in-the-sky intellectualism,” another technology lobbyist said, adding that Google’s K Street approach heretofore was “damn those Members of Congress who don’t know how smart we are.”

“I think that attitude really hurt them,” the source continued. “Then they got guys like Pablo.”

A first-generation American, Chavez arrived at the Internet search provider in 2007 after four years working for McCain on the Senate Commerce Committee and in his personal office. The Arizona native joined the committee after law firm and tech startup stints in Silicon Valley. He graduated from Stanford Law School in 1997 and received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton.

But his first love is not politics; it’s computers.

A regular “Street Fighter” video game brawler at Google’s downtown office, Chavez tinkered with computer programs as a kid. By the time he graduated from college in 1993, he was using an early version of the Internet and became involved in Multi-User Dungeon, an early online role-playing game that he said spawned today’s blockbusters like “World of Warcraft.”

“I got the technology bug early,” he said in a recent interview.

After law school, Chavez practiced law at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati before trying to catch lightning in a bottle in Silicon Valley. Chavez and some pals tried to take a simple idea and turn it into gold overnight. And like many techno-alchemists of the era, it worked — for a time.

“I’ve been with two startups, but neither one quite worked out. The first I helped start, but law school debt kept me from sticking with it, which was too bad because it was acquired by Amazon. The second one went bankrupt in the wake of the dot-com bust in 2001,” he said.

Putting Down (Net) Roots

About 10 years ago, Chavez and his wife relocated to Washington, D.C. In 2003, he started as a lawyer on the Commerce panel, which McCain chaired. At the time, the Internet and other emerging technologies were still somewhat foreign concepts to Members. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the few staffers who knew the real-life implications of the new devices, applications and commerce that the Internet begot.

Word eventually got out. By the time Google and its top Republican lobbyist Jamie Brown parted ways in 2007, a downtown source said Google’s then-
government relations chief Davidson found just what he was looking for. Brown is now a lobbyist at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti and did not respond to a message left on her office voice mail.

“She and Alan Davidson just weren’t the right fit. He hired her thinking that she’d be Pablo, and she kind of looked at him like, ‘Come on, this is Washington, D.C., there are certain ways of doing things,'” the source said. “Pablo’s a perfect fit for Google in that they’d wanted someone who had worked in Congress, who had strong Republican ties but also had an intellectual desire to learn the Google issues and conveying them to lawmakers.”

“He fits all of those Google-y qualities,” the source added.

David Cavicke, the Republican chief of staff on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, worked closely with Chavez when he was a Senate staffer. He called Google’s top lobbyist “very detail-oriented” and has continued to lean on his expertise since he left Capitol Hill.

“He knows a great deal about how technology works — that’s very valuable because this is all new stuff,” Cavicke said. “We’ll call him to get advice, when he was a staffer and now that he’s on the outside — even when we don’t agree with him.”

“He’ll give it to you as he knows it without spin,” Cavicke added.

Spin Cycle

But just because Chavez has a reputation for avoiding spin — at least by K Street standards — that doesn’t mean he’s telling the whole story.

In an interview, he not surprisingly gave few hard details about what the search giant’s long-term goals are in Washington, D.C. Chavez’s sentences bear the linguistic hallmarks of a Silicon Valley veteran, a corporate vocabulary that leans heavily on phrases like “inflection points” and “robust applications.”

Chavez did say that one of his team’s primary jobs is to make sure that Capitol Hill and the White House try to keep pace with the way technology is changing how businesses sell their products, how individuals communicate with each other and other ways that the Internet continues to alter society.

“Policymakers have become more familiar with the basics of technology and the Internet, and questions have arisen about how we deal with stuff like copyright on the Web,” he said. “The technology keeps evolving and keeps changing, and part of what we’re trying to do is make sure that Congress, the administration and others involved in policymaking are up to date with everything that’s going on.”

Tools of the Trade

He also acknowledged that part of his job is keeping Google’s shop focused on its unique blend of policy, lobbying and politics.

The company spends dramatically less on both political giving and lobbying than its main rival, Microsoft Corp., a company well-known for its K Street savvy.

In 2009, Google spent $4.03 million on lobbying, while Microsoft spent $6.72 million, according to Senate lobbying records. So far this year, Google has spent $1.38 million on lobbying, while Microsoft has spent $1.72 million.

This cycle, Google’s political action committee has made almost $179,000 in political contributions, according to CQ MoneyLine. Meanwhile, Microsoft’s PAC has made $990,000 in political contributions.

“We’re focused on being assertive and credible in our advocacy without demonizing the other side of the debate,” Chavez said. “We think this is both the right way to run our team and the best way to establish long-term credibility.”