Local before local was cool

Craig Robinson, city manager for Roseville, Calif., knows he can get his congressman on the phone. When he does, Robinson calls him John.

Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) is a good person for Robinson to know. As a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, Doolittle is in position to dole out millions of dollars in earmarks every year.

Despite Robinson’s personal relationship with a congressman with such a plum post, however, Roseville still felt it needed other people working on its behalf in Washington. The city is part of a growing trend of public entities turning to K Street to supplement their Washington representation.

“John is very influential and helpful, but he is not on every committee,” Robinson says. “There are other well-placed politicians, and it is so competitive going after grants and earmarks.”

Roseville hired the Ferguson Group, which caters almost exclusively to local governments and other public entities, to make sure it wasn’t left behind.

The firm was founded in 1983 — before a growth in earmarks showed local officials the benefits of hiring Washington representation — by a self-described former hippie attracted to this type of client because it didn’t require “screwing anybody.”

“I ran for alderman once. I did terribly, but I liked local government,” says firm founder William Ferguson.

“Local government affects people’s lives more than anything else.”

When Ferguson established his firm, the market for lobbying on behalf of public entities hadn’t even risen to the level of niche. It barely existed.

A few large cities hired help, but the midsize ones didn’t, much less local transportation boards or public water utilities. Fewer than 50 public entities hired lobbyists, Ferguson has estimated.

Now the Ferguson Group itself has more than 150 clients from across the country. It has averaged about 15 percent annual revenue growth in the past 20 years and is among the top 25 lobbying firms in terms of revenue.

Other firms have seen similar growth as the lobbying business exploded, but the Ferguson Group is unusual because it has built its business almost entirely on representing public entities. Its contracts are relatively small, but its client list long and loyal.

The firm is different in other ways too. Instead of hiring former lawmakers to open doors, the firm seems proud not to be like “old-fashioned lobbying firms … stacked with big-name, high-priced lawyers and former members of Congress who boast of their access and relationships with decisionmakers” That pitch was part of one bid the Ferguson Group submitted for a local contract.

Ferguson says firm lobbyists aren’t the “Georgetown cocktail party” type.

That doesn’t mean firm lobbyists are above giving political campaign contributions to members of key committees. But more important to the business, Ferguson insists, is the expertise his firm has in dealing with issues particular to local government.

“There is a laundry list of issues that might be affected by the federal government,” Ferguson says.

Clients often maintain a relationship with the firm for years. The city of Inglewood, Calif., for example, has been a client from the start. Ferguson originally helped the city with an airport noise issue.

He has strolled on the waterfront in Norwalk, Conn., that he helped rebuild. He also helped get money for senior housing for the city.

“On a personal level it is satisfying. You can see how a project … has affected people’s lives,” he says.

Behind the growth in the number of public entities hiring lobbying shops is a growth in congressional earmarks.

Congress now doles out 12,000 earmarks in the annual budget. In the late 1990s it “earmarked” slightly more than 4,000 projects.

Ferguson stresses that his firm does much more than pork, however. He says he does at least as much negotiating with regulatory agencies, or passing language in authorization bills that help a project move forward.

One of the biggest projects the firm has worked on was for Orange County, Calif. The county needed to build a 65-mile road that would cost billions of dollars — too much for the state to pay.

With the help of Ferguson, the state formed a toll agency for the project. Ferguson also helped to persuade Congress to extend lines of credit to the agency, which allowed the county to get money for the road from the private markets. Up until then, markets hadn’t supported toll projects.

The road hasn’t cost the federal government a penny, and the toll agency celebrated its 20th anniversary recently.

The firm also negotiated dozens of regulatory issues, like rights of way, Clean Water Act restrictions and critical habitat protections for Orange County as part of the highway work.

“You have a sense of accomplishment when you ride down this great big road,” Ferguson says.

Every year, the firm’s team of 32 lobbyists spreads across the country, visiting clients to help them set priorities for projects and piece together a package of wants and needs.

“People insinuate that this is a wasteful process, but we go through a very thoughtful process before we initiate a request,” Ferguson says. He says that the federal government used to spend more money on local government  before the age of the earmarks, only through grant and loan programs that have since ended.

The lobbyists help choose which projects are likely to get federal money and write up pages of background materials to justify the budget request.

To avoid conflicts, Ferguson says, his group represents only two clients per congressional district.

The entire package that results from the client meetings can range in length from 50 to 200 pages.

The relationship has worked out well for Roseville, says Robinson, the city manager.

The city pays Ferguson about $90,000 a year. For that it received a windfall in 2006: $71.6 million for widening its section of Interstate 80, which was the second largest earmark in California that year; $1.6 million more for an interchange; $250,000 for a public communications systems; and $6 million for water conservation, which came from the very appropriations subcommittee, energy and water development, where Doolittle sits.

In the previous three years, the city has averaged more than $2 million in earmark money. Is it worth the public expense to hire an outside firm?

“You do the math,” Robinson says. “We’ve done very, very well.”

Roseville hasn’t been the only one to benefit.

One problem critics point to is that lawmakers often get campaign contributions from the firms that represent clients back home. Ferguson Group lobbyists, for example, have contributed more than $25,000 to Doolittle’s campaign over the past six years, according to figures compiled by the group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is critical of the growth in earmarks. The firm has given to other members on the energy and water-development panel, such as subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-Ohio) and ranking member Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.).

Twenty-six clients received earmarks in the fiscal year 2006 energy and water bill, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. There were more than 2,300 earmarks in the bill.

Contributing to members of Congress undercuts the argument that lobbying firms simply act as extensions of a lawmaker’s staff, critics say.

“It appears that he is getting contributions to hand out pork to communities that he is representing,” says Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “It’s not kosher pork.”

A spokeswoman for Doolittle said the congressman wouldn’t apologize for helping secure federal money for his district. Ashdown doesn’t fault communities that look to K Street.

“Nobody can object to hiring a lobbyist in this era,” he said. 

Ferguson said that campaign contributions are part of the political process. His firm has worked with Doolittle, who used to be the chairman Water and Power Resources Subcommittee, on a number of water projects in the West, he said.

“We think of it as contributing to people who have helped us,” he said.

“We think of ourselves as working with Congress people, as opposed to trying to sell them something,” Ferguson says.