K Street Lobbyists Decamp to the Campaign Trail
Lobbyist Alaina Beverly recently scheduled a two-week vacation from her job at the Raben Group, booked a flight to Miami, reserved a rental car and made plans to stay with friends.
It sounds like a great getaway during the downtime of the Congressional recess — except that Beverly plans to work a grueling schedule as a campaign volunteer.
She flew to the pivotal swing state Monday to aid President Barack Obama’s quest for a second term. “You only live once, and we only get this opportunity to re-elect the president once,” Beverly said. “This is my priority.”
The lure of the campaign trail is strong on K Street.
During the next two weeks, Republican and Democratic lobbyists will leave their comfortable offices, tap into their reserve of vacation days, put clients and family commitments on hold and head out to work on the campaigns of former bosses and other favorite politicians. They expect to canvass political battlegrounds, knocking on doors and putting up yard signs. Some will sit in windowless rooms calling voters, while others will pitch in by driving citizens to polling places.
The lobbyists endure the grunt work because they are, at heart, partisans who want to see their candidates in power. Many also feel compelled to help keep their patrons in office and to freshen their contacts inside the government. Such relationships are the currency of a solid book of business on K Street.
But the presence of lobbyist volunteers is something that campaigns often prefer to keep quiet, especially on the Democratic side. It’s common for politicians of both parties at every level, including Obama, to rail against “special interests” and the people who represent them.
Many K Street denizens heading to states such as Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, Missouri and Montana agreed to discuss their volunteer work on the condition that their names not be used. Some said they take pains not to appear like outsiders — a University of Connecticut sweatshirt has no place in Missouri, for example. And they keep any regional accents in check.
Beverly, a 2008 Obama campaign aide and former White House staffer in his administration, cannot donate money to the president’s re-election campaign because of his ban on contributions from registered lobbyists. But she said she wants to do everything in her power to ensure he wins Nov. 6.
She is returning to Miami, where the campaign sent her in the final month of the 2008 campaign. “I found an amazing operation down there,” she said.
Chris DeLacy is fighting the same kind of battle on the opposite side. The lobbyist and campaign finance attorney at Holland & Knight has volunteered with Lawyers for Romney. He’s already participated in a training session and is awaiting an assignment, most likely in his home state of Virginia.
“Everyone’s prepared for a legal challenge,” DeLacy said.
He plans to use personal leave on Election Day, when he expects to serve as a poll observer. In that role, he could challenge a voter’s identification or registration if something seems amiss — for example, if a person shows up to vote but his or her name is already checked off on the rolls.
In 2004, DeLacy went to South Dakota to observe the contest between then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D) and the Republican who defeated him, Sen. John Thune.
“I remember going out to dinner, and you could tell some of the folks in the restaurant weren’t from South Dakota,” he said.
A little casual snooping revealed that one table was filled with Democrats volunteering for Daschle. “Then there was a table of people from the Department of Justice observing everybody,” he recalled.
DeLacy’s Democratic colleague Lynn Cutler, a senior aide in the Clinton administration and a one-time elected county official in Iowa, has donated to and raised money for Democrat Tammy Duckworth’s House campaign in Illinois’ 8th district. She’s also spent hours calling voters for Duckworth and plans many more as Election Day nears.
“Sitting on the phones is like, I thought I was never going to do this again in my life,” she said. “After 40 years of politics, I’ve done a lot of it. This isn’t my favorite thing to do, but I would do anything for her.”
Ohio native John O’Neill, a lobbyist with Capitol Counsel, is planning a trip home, where he will stay with relatives while campaigning for Republicans. “It’s fun being from a battleground state and having a chance to reconnect with friends from past elections, family and even a lot of D.C. friends who are there,” he said.
Then, he plans to head west.
“I love my parents dearly, but after spending a week sleeping in their spare bedroom, I may need to escape for a few days of volunteering in a sunnier climate like Nevada, Arizona or Florida,” he quipped.
DeLacy, an expert on campaign finance law, said lobbyists must be careful when out on the trail. They can’t bring in dinner for campaign workers, for example, without making sure the campaign logs the cost as an in-kind donation.
K Streeters also must use their vacation or unpaid leave, as Dutko Grayling lobbyist Ron Kaufman has done to work full time on Mitt Romney’s campaign. That’s because employers aren’t allowed to subsidize the volunteer work.
The rules can be difficult to enforce. One lobbyist who is heading to a competitive Senate race said firms sometimes offer extra vacation to cover the time spent on the ground. But most other lobbyists said they are careful to stay within the law to keep themselves and their candidates out of any trouble.
And while much of K Street might be motivated by financial self-interest, even the most jaded lobbyist can find a little inspiration on the campaign trail.
“We see it as an extension of our work more than as a true volunteer endeavor,” said lobbyist Andy Rosenberg, who lost a primary bid against Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) in 2004 and plans to help the campaign of Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) over the weekend.
“One thing that actually is invigorating as a lobbyist is to go to a campaign headquarters or a union hall and just be amazed at these people from every walk of life who have very busy lives who are there because they believe in the importance of elections and the process,” Rosenberg said. “It gives you greater appreciation for our democracy.”
And the bonds that form during the intensity of a campaign often last, solidified by near all-nighters and a common goal.
“Some of my best friends in my adult life have come from people who don’t look like me, don’t have the same upbringing, but were side by side with me in the trenches in ’08,” said Beverly, a 36-year-old African-American who grew up in the Midwest. “We share the commitment to the president but also a vision for what our country can be. I’m seeing it again this year.”