Tuesday Profile: K Street's real pro

Manuel Ortiz is not one to sit still. At only 38, the lobbyist has become one of the marquee Democrats on K Street and earned a reputation as a potent fundraiser for his party.

Ortiz has lobbied for some of the biggest companies in America and acts as a critical link between business and Democratic Party politics.

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“I’m known for aggressiveness,” Ortiz told The Hill.

About a month ago, Ortiz joined Brownstein Hyatt Farber Shreck, one of the capital’s top 10 lobbying firms, as co-chairman of the management committee for the firm’s Washington office. 

The move to Brownstein Hyatt was a fresh start for Ortiz, who had been a fixture at another K Street firm, Quinn Gillespie, for almost a decade. 

Ortiz speaks fondly of his time at Quinn Gillespie, where he said he learned that lobbying is more than just access and relationships, more than just scoring a meeting with a lawmaker. Effective lobbying, Ortiz found, was about building coalitions and finding voices outside Washington that could validate the stories of clients and articulate them forcefully to legislators.

 “Message matters. Messengers matter,” Ortiz said. “We used to do that before it was mainstream.”

Those lessons have been put to work for blue-chip clients including AT&T, Hilton, Qualcomm and Visa, among others, according to lobbying disclosure records. 

Some, however, doubted that Ortiz would succeed in the influence industry.

Ortiz said a senior partner at a prior firm told him that he would never make it in lobbying because he was Hispanic. After they discussed his desire to do more lobbying work on Capitol Hill, the partner asked, “What? You going to lobby the Hispanic Caucus?”

That comment hasn’t stopped Ortiz from taking pride in his heritage.

A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Ortiz often acts as a liaison between the U.S. island territory and Washington. He has lobbied for several Puerto Rican clients, such as the Senate of Puerto Rico, and fundraises for political candidates among the island’s residents.

Ortiz lobbied hard so Puerto Rican residents could have more access to new services made available under the healthcare reform law. That led to increased Medicaid and Medicare funding of $1 billion for the island.

Calling it a personal cause, Ortiz said he did what he could to help the island’s impoverished residents.

“What rises above is the actual need,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz’s career also keeps him in close contact with his wife, Kristin Solheim, who helps oversee Visa’s lobbying operations — and is above him in the corporate hierarchy because he’s a contract lobbyist for the credit card provider.

“My wife is sometimes my boss at work, and always at home,” joked Ortiz, a father of four.

Ortiz didn’t take the usual path to a lobbying career. Rather than working as a congressional staffer or a White House aide —the jobs typically used as a springboard to a career in advocacy — he started out his adult life as a professional tennis player.

He earned a full athletic scholarship to play tennis at the University of Kansas, where he got involved with a young-Republican group.

“I got older and wiser,” Ortiz said lightheartedly of his later party change.

After winning all-conference honors and making the Puerto Rican Davis Cup team, Ortiz spent a year on the pro circuit before taking some fatherly advice.

“My dad convinced me to apply to law school as a backup,” he said. Ortiz still plays the sport, and has played with several lawmakers.

Ortiz went on to graduate from the University of Kansas’s law school and ended up in the Miami branch of the super-law firm Verner Liipfert Bernhard McPherson & Hand, now part of DLA Piper. While there, he would accompany former Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and George Mitchell (D-Maine) on trips to Latin America.

Among its senior partners, Ortiz recalled, “No one else spoke Spanish at the firm.”

Ortiz said he “always had a political bug” and was active in Puerto Rico’s political campaigns while in college; the island’s former governor, Pedro Rossello, is a family friend. So it was hardly a surprise that Ortiz entered presidential politics as an adviser and fundraiser to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) during his 2004 run for the White House.

Ortiz’s name will forever be linked to that 2004 campaign.

A top result in a Google search for “Manny Ortiz” — the lobbyist’s nickname — is an article on a slip of the tongue by Kerry during his White House run. Asked who was his favorite Boston Red Sox player, the Massachusetts senator is quoted as saying, “Manny Ortiz” instead of slugger David Ortiz.

“We share a laugh about it every time we see each other,” Ortiz said.

Kerry said it was as a tired candidate in 2004 that he accidentally dropped Manny’s name — but the headlines that read “Kerry loves Manny Ortiz” rang true.

“Manny’s just an all-around good guy who is smart and fun and loyal and tough, and somehow he still finds time to be one hell of a tennis player. He fought his heart out in our campaign and was there just as loyal and tenacious when I came back here afterwards. He’s family,” Kerry said in a statement.

Ortiz kept up his fundraising for the Democratic Party and attended the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (DSCC) summer retreat to Martha’s Vineyard this year. He raised $46,500 for the DSCC during the first half of 2011, according to records filed by the campaign committee with the Federal Election Committee.

Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on electioneering activities, Ortiz has taken a greater interest in the role outside groups play in campaign politics. The lobbyist believes funds will continue to flow to groups separate from the Democratic and Republican parties.

“The new Holy Grail is third-party money,” Ortiz said. “All of the big money is going to the third parties.”

To set up shop at Brownstein, Ortiz had to leave his longtime home of Quinn Gillespie. Jack Quinn, the former Clinton White House counsel and co-founder and chairman of the firm, said he considers himself lucky to count Ortiz and his wife as “great friends.”

“Manny is smart, savvy and an incredibly hardworking guy with whom I have tremendously enjoyed working,” Quinn said.

“The hardest part was my personal connection to Jack,” Ortiz said. “It was like leaving a marriage rather than leaving a job.”

But Ortiz is confident that he made the right move. He didn’t sign a noncompete agreement with Quinn Gillespie and has been talking to his clients about transitioning to his new firm.

“I had an opportunity to join a firm that was in clear ascension,” said Ortiz, who thinks Brownstein will provide a bigger lobbying platform for his clients. “By making the switch, they will be better served.”