“We always felt that one of the biggest assets we had was that we were everywhere. We’re in every town. We’re in every district,” said Lee Culpepper, an unassuming Georgia native who has directed the group’s lobbying efforts for the past six years.
Next month, Culpepper is taking over the lobbying office of another organization that can claim a measure of ubiquity: Wal-Mart.
Though it’s massive — with 3,000 stores in the United States and revenues in excess of $285 billion — Wal-Mart is still a relative newcomer to Washington.
Tapping a grassroots network is something the company has “not been equipped to do,” said Ray Bracy, who as Wal-Mart’s vice president of federal and international public affairs will be Culpepper’s boss.
“How you get it done is something that we will be looking at,” Bracy said.
But getting some of Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million employees to help push the company’s legislative agenda is a long-term goal. The immediate future is in building up the company’s lobbying team in Washington.
“Basic blocking and tackling,” Bracy said.
In January, Wal-Mart had just four in-house lobbyists, including Erik Winborn, the former head of the office who resigned in March.
Bracy said the company wants a staff of 14 by the end of the summer.
The company hired Culpepper because his humble personality fit with the company ethic, and for his ability to work with both parties in Congress, Bracy said. His experience with grassroots politics could prove an asset down the road, Bracy said.
Drawn to the Republican Party by President Ronald Reagan’s leadership and conservative economic policies, Culpepper actually began his Washington career in the mailroom of a Georgia Democrat, then-Sen. Sam Nunn. Culpepper had been president of Young Republicans as a student at the University of Georgia, but there were only two home-state Republicans at the time, and their staffs were full.
Culpepper stayed on Capitol Hill for nine years, leaving as staff director to Rep. Richard Ray, another Democrat and former Nunn chief of staff, to take a job as a lobbyist for the restaurant group in 1993.
“Respecting people’s point of view is very important, even when you don’t agree with them,” Culpepper said when asked what he learned as a Republican working for Democrats.
Funding those points of view has been a different thing for the restaurant group’s PAC, however. One accomplishment Culpepper points to is the growth of his group’s ability to fund candidates who support its priorities.
The PAC typically has about $1.6 million per election cycle to distribute, up from under $1 million when he started at the group.
About 80 percent of that money gets sent to Republicans because the party is more aligned with the association’s “free-market philosophy,” Culpepper said.
An economics and political science double major at the University of Georgia, Culpepper further honed his fiscal-conservative credentials doing economics graduate work at George Mason University while working on the Hill.
While at the association, Culpepper has served on the Bush-Cheney transition team for the Labor Department in 2000. He also is chairman of the Fiscal Responsibility Coalition, a group of more than 270 business associations that support limited federal spending.
Bracy said Culpepper’s experience working with coalitions was another factor in his hiring.
Like other business groups, the restaurant association stepped up get-out-the-vote efforts in 2004. It maintained a website through which members could register.
When Culpepper arrived, the group didn’t track votes, but now the association sends out a vote chart two weeks before an election.
The changes are as much a function of advancements in technology as they are a new strategic vision, he said.
The growth of the Internet has helped lobby as well, Culpepper said.
“Twelve years ago we called people and left them a message on a little pink slip. Now we e-mail people with talking points.”
The association operates a database of contacts of state association heads, executives at chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, or more mom-and-pop types to lobby Congress.
Steve Pfister, the vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation, another group with a broad base of lobbying power, said of the restaurant association: “They have a very active and a very good grassroots membership.”
The association has been listed in Fortune magazine’s list of the 25 most influential groups in Washington. Culpepper is often on “best lobbyists” list, including this newspaper’s annual survey.
The group’s rising influence is also an indication of the shift in the American economy from manufacturing to service sector jobs, Pfister said. There were 9.5 million workers employed in American restaurants in 1995. By 2015, the group expects that to grow to 14 million.
Having a broad membership brings its own problems, of course, such as getting a huge and diverse group to agree on a list of priorities.
“It’s tough to get a small mom-and-pop restaurant to be one the same page as a major corporation like McDonald’s or Yum Brands,” parent of Pizza Hut, KFC and Taco Bell, he said.
The mantra for a successful business has always been “location, location, location.” For a trade-group head, Culpepper said, it’s “communication, communication, communication.”
“To me that was a big part of this job, was being an evangelist to the restaurant industry, encouraging them to get involved in the political process. It’s really our members participation and support for us that has helped us who we are today on Capitol Hill.”
Of the large chain restaurants, only McDonald’s maintains a D.C. office. Most restaurant groups hire out for help.
But Culpepper said only about a dozen firms represent the industry’s position, which leaves much of the work to the association.
“When I got here, the association had a reputation as a group that was up and coming, and I hope as I leave here that we’ve filled that potential of being a major player on Capitol Hill,” Culpepper said.