Tim Pawlenty brings new look to Wall Street lobbying group

Clad in jeans and a button-down, Tim Pawlenty doesn’t fit the mold of Wall Street powerbroker — and that suits him just fine.

“This is an industry that got their butt kicked. To the extent that they need something new and different and fresh, I think I bring that to the table,” Pawlenty said in an exclusive interview with The Hill.

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Some on K Street were scratching their heads last year when the Financial Services Roundtable hired Pawlenty as president and CEO. The choice of a former governor without a background in finance seemed a risky move for an industry facing the most sweeping regulatory overhaul since the Great Depression.

Now more than seven months on the job, Pawlenty says a voice from outside the boardroom is exactly what the financial industry needed.

“They could go back to the old model, which is ‘Go get some Washington insider to run a trade association,’ but candidly, how was that working for them?” Pawlenty said.

The Roundtable conducted an extensive search before hiring Pawlenty in September, interviewing more than 30 candidates after starting with more than 100 potential recruits.

One Republican strategist who closely followed Pawlenty’s presidential run said his low-key persona was probably a major draw for the lobby group.

“Let’s be honest, Wall Street and the financial services industry [are] about as popular as cockroaches with a broad swath of the American electorate,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican political strategist. “Pawlenty exudes trust and stability.”

“You can’t have someone who’s a bomb thrower,” O’Connell added. “They have to stick to the script.”

New to Washington and to Wall Street, the ex-governor of Minnesota has been hitting the books to learn the ins and outs of the industry.

Throughout his talk with The Hill, Pawlenty sprinkled his comments with insider jargon like “float the NAV” — in reference to a Securities and Exchange Commission push to reform money market funds — as he rattled off the different business his trade group’s members are engaged in, from asset management to captive finance.

At the same time, he stressed he hasn’t transformed into a financial technocrat in a matter of months — but contends he wasn’t brought on to master such minutia in the first place.  

“The concern on the substance, I think, has evaporated or is evaporating,” Pawlenty said. “I have the ability to absorb and learn it, and I have.”

Pawlenty’s move to the executive suite came after a whirlwind year that saw him go from presidential candidate to VP hopeful to prominent surrogate for Mitt Romney.

When the Roundtable came calling, Pawlenty saw the position as “intriguing and interesting,” and admitted he “had to do some homework on it.” He listed several reasons why he took the job.

“I get to stay involved in public policy, which I have a passion for and strong interest in. Number two, I get to lean into kind of business and finance issues in a way that’s interesting. And three, I get to do it at a leadership level, which I enjoy. And four, I get paid pretty well,” Pawlenty said.

The pay is likely substantial. His predecessor at the Roundtable, former Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Texas), earned more than $1.8 million in compensation for 2011, according to the group’s tax form for that year.

The Roundtable job has put Pawlenty in close contact with the captains of finance. He’s been making trips to New York several times a month while spending time emailing and talking on the phone with group’s board of directors, which includes executives from Allstate, Fidelity Investments and Wells Fargo & Co.  

A Republican lobbyist for the financial services industry said Pawlenty has been a breath of fresh air.

“What’s refreshing about Pawlenty is he’s not a recycled Washington figure,” the lobbyist said. “This is the first guy who represented a state, ran for president and hasn’t been in Washington for a significant part of his career. He understands the industry has a reputational problem. He has a 30,000 foot view, unlike a lot of these other guys, because he wasn’t part of the game here in Washington.” 

Pawlenty said he spends a lot of time in meetings with “the usual suspects” — other ex-governors such as former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) and former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) — who head up other major business groups around town.

Along the way, he’s learning how to be an advocate for the Roundtable’s members.

For starters, Pawlenty is pushing back against the idea that “too big to fail” banks continue to threaten the financial system despite passage of the Dodd-Frank overhaul. 

Large financial institutions and the White House have become unusual allies in that struggle, as both contend the financial reform laws puts the threat of bailouts to bed.

Pawlenty is urging patience on the matter, contending that it is too soon to declare Dodd-Frank a failure until new capital requirements and an international accord are fully in place.

“A good argument can be made that Dodd-Frank does end ‘too big to fail,’ ” he said. “It hasn’t even been finalized yet, and before people jump on the bandwagon or jump on making some additional changes, we should see what the final versions of Dodd-Frank and [the international banking accord] Basel III look like.”