Gustafson: A brainy lobbyist on a Vespa

Most lobbyists stake their reputations on street smarts, not book smarts. But former Ph.D. candidate Erick Gustafson has made a name on K Street for salesmanship with brains.

Gustafson, vice president of government affairs at the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA), cites complex intellectual concepts with ease. He is also honest even when it doesn’t serve his interests, which has helped Gustafson build credibility in a town known for its heavy spin and project an almost studied confidence beyond his 34 years.

“You have to make it safe for a person to tell you bad news,” Gustafson said over a glass of wine at Charlie Palmer Steakhouse. “I don’t expect scales to fall from people’s eyes just because I walk in and tell them [what I think].”

Gustafson’s composure comes from a wealth of Washington experience. He has worked the Hill from every angle since arriving in 1994, starting as a legislative aide before moving to ideological advocacy as a lobbyist for FreedomWorks, the conservative group now run by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas).

When Gustafson came to the MBA two years ago, he and boss Kurt Pfotenhauer sought to boost the trade association’s flagging morale with a threefold mission: people, grassroots and cash.

“We were able to build a lobbying team that makes the MBA relevant in the discussion, and grow the size of our PAC more than 100 percent,” Gustafson said. “To be perfectly self-interested about it, it’s not the last job I’m going to have in my life, so it’s important to do it well.”

Gustafson’s new hires came from both sides of the aisle. Fran Creighton came on board from Rep. Steve Israel’s (D-N.Y.) office to cover House Democrats, Josh Denney left his position with Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to target Senate Republicans, and Renee Rappaport joined the firm to manage Senate Democrats and appropriations.

“I don’t want to hear ‘no,’” Gustafson said. “I want to create an environment where a ‘yes’ is inevitable, then ask.”

Rising PAC contributions have effected the most change at the MBA in the Gustafson era. The association’s lobbying spending for this year is on track nearly to double its 2003 bill, and the MBA’s PAC, for years a “$400,000, $450,000 per cycle” giver, now takes in “north of $1 million,” Gustafson said. The fund is set to break its 2004 record for campaign contributions.

Gustafson humbly attributes that success to a revitalized grassroots membership. Admiring fellow lobbyists, such as Dan Berger of America’s Community Bankers, credit Gustafson’s tireless work ethic.

“He not only wears out the shoe leather on the Hill, he attends events and functions morning, noon and night just about every day of the week,” Berger said.

Today the MBA is an influential force in financial-services lobbying, playing a crucial role in the debate over creating a new regulator for federal mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, also called the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs). The House overwhelmingly passed its Fannie-Freddie bill earlier this fall, but the Senate remains deadlocked over whether to adopt the White House’s strict limits on the GSEs’ investment portfolios.

Gustafson takes a characteristically practical and reasoned approach to the real estate industry’s Fannie-Freddie waiting game.

“In the legislative process, your moment of greatest strength is in conference,” which he called a “get-together with 15 of your closest friends.”

Gustafson projects the chances for Senate movement on GSEs next year as greater than 50 percent. “It would be a bummer to see all the work of the past couple of years come to nothing because we’re unable to get a bill out of the Senate.”

Gustafson cut his financial-services teeth working for Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), a former mortgage banker himself, who noted Gustafson’s intellect, as well as his attention to sartorial detail.

“He is extraordinarily well-groomed,” Foley said. Looking at Gustafson, “you say, ‘That guy’s going places.’”

Indeed, Gustafson’s square-rimmed glasses and slim-cut suits are more likely to be found on the streets of London than the utilitarian halls of K Street. While most lobbyists wax rhapsodic on the Redskins and 18 holes of golf, Gustafson bonds with staffers using his encyclopedic knowledge of fine wines and gourmet food.

In a GOP disdainful of all things Eurocentric, the Clark Kent-look-alike Gustafson even manages to make driving a Vespa scooter into a social signature.

“I kidded him one night and said, ‘Do you think you’re going to a caf