Joel Jankowsky, longtime Akin Gump lobbyist, exits K Street

Joel Jankowsky, a longtime fixture on K Street, is retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Joel Jankowsky, a longtime fixture on K Street, is retiring. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 20, 2019 at 12:00pm

When Joel Jankowsky left Capitol Hill in 1977 to set up shop on K Street, his transition through the revolving door seems bizarre by the influence industry’s current norms: He lobbied both parties.

“The whole thing has changed so drastically,” Jankowsky said recently in his office at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a 42-year gig that he’s retiring from at year’s end.

Lawmakers, in the throes of post-Watergate reforms, worked more collaboratively, and party affiliation mattered less for lobbyists than their familiarity with the legislative process. “Our whole society is so much more complex, that it makes policy making all the more complex,” he said. “And therefore those who have to deal with policy makers, it makes their job even harder.”

Jankowsky, whose corporate lobbying career spanned two of the country’s three impeachments as well as major shifts in the influence industry, helped build up Akin Gump’s lobby shop over the past four decades, working for such clients as AT&T, the Motion Picture Association of America, pharmaceutical companies, American Indian tribes, Dow Chemical Co. and the government of the United Arab Emirates, among others, according to lobbying disclosures.

He was often in the shadow of the firm’s Robert Strauss, the legendary Texan who served as U.S. trade representative during the Carter administration and ambassador to the Soviet Union and then Russia during the George H.W. Bush presidency. But the lobbying operation was Jankowsky’s realm, said Bruce McLean, a former chairman of the firm.

“Before Joel joined the firm, there was the perception that because the firm was Bob Strauss’ firm, we had some capability to do legislative work, and that perception had no basis in reality,” McLean recalled. “One of the happiest days of my life, as a young partner, was when we interviewed Joel Jankowsky. He had all the skills that we lacked.”

Jankowsky, who is 76 and was once a Judge Advocate General lawyer in the U.S. Army, learned his way around the Capitol as an aide to then-House Speaker Carl Albert, a Democrat from Jankowsky’s home state Oklahoma.

He will maintain a loose affiliation with the firm, continuing to mentor Akin Gump lobbyists, something he was known for through the years, according to recent and former colleagues.

“Joel has done such a tremendous job in cultivating the talent at Akin Gump and instilling the values of team work and bipartisanship and making sure all our bases are covered,” said partner Arshi Siddiqui, who joined the firm in 2010 from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “The piece that stands out with Joel is the way he conducts himself. He’s always a calming force in terms of staying focused and developing a good plan, pivoting when necessary but not panicking.”

Jankowsky’s role as a mentor was not confined to Akin Gump. Even some would-be competitors on K Street said the veteran lobbyist offered them insight and helped them along.

Mike House, a senior counsel at Hogan Lovells, recalled Jankowsky’s lobbying him when House was chief of staff to then-Sen. Howell Heflin, an Alabama Democrat who served from 1979 to the mid-1990s. House puts Jankowsky on par with two other lobbyists of the era: Tommy Boggs and J.D. Williams.

“Those were the three lions,” House said. “Not only were they the upper level strategists and good day-to-day lobbyists, but most of all they were all good mentors. Joel’s been a mentor to so many of us, including myself.”

Coalition building

House and Jankowsky shared a client for years, then known as FM Watch, a coalition that took on the government-sponsored mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac before the financial crisis led the federal government to place them in conservatorship.

“It was really one of the great lobbying battles in the history of the city,” House recalled. “One thing that Joel was really a master at, it’s like looking at a pool table, and Joel knew how to do the bank shots. Joel says, ‘We need to get to this member that moves that one.’ I always call Joel the master shooter of bank shots.”

Jankowsky says such coalitions became more critical to K Street interests as lobbying became more complicated and professionalized over the decades.

Jim Cicconi, a former Akin Gump partner who went in-house at AT&T as a top executive in charge of legislative affairs, says Jankowsky shied away from recognition.

“He has always deflected credit to others over the years,” Cicconi said. “He’s a genuinely humble person.”

Behind the scenes

Cicconi, who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said Jankowsky served as a pivotal role model.

“One of the things I learned, when I was young and full of myself coming out of the White House, was how to keep your ego in check,” Cicconi said. “I’m sure friends of mine would say I wasn’t always successful. But that’s an important lesson to learn and one of the key things that Joel tried to teach.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that Jankowsky “brought his heartland values to Congress, helping Speaker Carl Albert carry forward the work of Democrats in the House.”

“His legacy could be felt for years after his departure from Capitol Hill, and whenever he would return to these hallowed halls, his presence would be a reminder that people of good nature and congeniality could come together and achieve great things even when finding themselves on opposite sides of the aisle,” Hoyer continued. “Joel continued to do that for decades, all the while lending his institutional knowledge of the House to those who sought his counsel.”

Jankowsky, whose recent contributions include donations to Hoyer, said he plans to do less on the political fundraising scene but plans to remain engaged in the 2020 elections. He also plans to increase his charitable work. He serves as chairman of the Close Up Foundation and is a board member of the Prevent Cancer Foundation. He’s active at his alma mater, University of Oklahoma, with scholarships and lectureships in his family’s name and in former Speaker Albert’s memory.

He’s donated political money this election cycle to the coffers of Reps. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., and Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., both are freshman members who flipped their seats from the GOP.

Jankowsky, who recalls first arriving on Capitol Hill as an intern in 1966 — “I parked my car on the east side of the Capitol and walked in the door” — won’t say much about the Trump era, with its chaos and upending of longstanding norms but also largely corporate-friendly.

“It’s certainly unique,” he said in his signature drawl.