An unlikely cast of lobbyists, odd bedfellows even by K Street’s typically bipartisan approach, has spent the past year nurturing a fledgling firm aimed at building coalitions between dyed-in-the-wool conservatives and lefty progressives on Capitol Hill.
The firm, recently christened United By Interest, is so far a commercial flop, if judged solely by the number of clients it has attracted: zero. But in an unusual twist, the lobbyists behind the effort, all of whom have their own separate K Street businesses, have managed to prod along a unique infrastructure bill with support of lawmakers from the conservative Freedom Caucus and the liberal Congressional Black Caucus.
That’s the whole point — to prove their strategy can work, say the lobbyists behind United By Interest, a crew that includes Michael Williams, Sam Geduldig and Jennifer Stewart, whose résumés span the political spectrum. Other partners include Joe Velasquez, Jim Terry and David Morgan.
In an increasingly polarized and partisan environment, where gridlock dominates Congress, these lobbyists say they are searching for a model that can produce greater flow between left and right, and legislation that will pass. In their research about what might motivate members of Congress from the extremes of both parties, they stumbled on a common theme: the poorest congressional districts. Their idea is to push together the fringes by aligning them on economic development projects back home.
“Everybody in Congress has constituents, even though you have a political view, you still have constituents that you have to serve,” said Williams, a former Democratic Hill aide who runs the lobbying shop, The Williams Group. “I’ve been here a long time, and we used to actually do legislation that had material impact.”
Geduldig, a top GOP donor and lobbyist with the CGCN Group, said he and his other United By Interest partners want to harness the political clout of disparate bases. The pending infrastructure bill is something of a test case that could ultimately serve as a template should it beat the long odds to enactment.
Reps. Ted Budd, a Freedom Caucus member from North Carolina; William Lacy Clay, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from St. Louis, Missouri; and Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvanian on the Republican Study Committee, signed on to the bill as co-sponsors. The advocacy group National Taxpayers Union endorsed the effort.
“We think this legislation will give us an opportunity to provide employment opportunities for impoverished communities around this nation,” Clay said during a recent appearance with Kelly on “Matter of Fact” with Soledad O’Brien.
The measure would set up the sale of distressed Agriculture Department loans to private financial firms, and then the government would use half the proceeds to pay down the national debt and the other half would be distributed among the poorest congressional districts for infrastructure projects.
“The philosophy and model for our firm is to start with the ideological bases of both the Democratic Caucus and the Republican Conference and work our way to the middle,” Geduldig said. “The firm is rooted in the idea that the poorest communities in the poorest congressional districts represent the most energized constituencies in both parties. It’s our belief that this energy and momentum can be used for bipartisan legislative victories and policy advancement, if channeled correctly.”
Though United By Interest so far has no clients, “we also hope to attract corporate clients who appreciate our diverse approach,” he added. The firm’s diversity goes beyond just bipartisanship. Its partners are African-American, Hispanic, white, male and female.
Even though they represent clients in the financial industry through their other firms, their work on the bill is not on behalf of any clients, Williams and Geduldig said. It’s essentially a pro bono effort, for now.
“Technically it’s the same exact thing I do the rest of the time, but it’s just a better story, and it makes me feel good,” Williams said. “I’m doing this for literally the benefit of communities and to see whether or not we can actually do stuff in D.C. again.”
That’s the motivation for Stewart too. She started working on Capitol Hill in 2000 and recalled working with lawmakers across the aisle. Her onetime bosses, such as Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, made deals with fellow Texans Tom DeLay and Dick Armey, House GOP leaders, she said.
There’s room for such comity, on behalf of voters, even amid a passionate “resistance” movement on the Democratic side, Stewart added. She noted the “natural distrust,” and even paranoia, that pervades the conversations among lawmakers of opposite sides.
“Where their constituencies are suffering, there has to be a way to address those needs,” said Stewart, also of Stewart Strategies & Solutions. “It’s a labor of love,” she added of the new outfit.
“From the outside in, it might not seem like the most natural fit, but it’s been fun and rewarding to be a part of something that’s so different from anything else on K Street,” Geduldig said.
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