With the Dems back in power, there’s good business for Elmendorf, even at the gym

Whatever success Steve Elmendorf has had as a lobbyist — and he’s had plenty since Democrats took over Congress — there remains a humbling difference between this life and an old one.

“The vast majority of people who came to see me when I was Dick Gephardt’s chief of staff were in some fashion sucking up to me,” Elmendorf says. “In my current job, I have to go up to the Hill and suck up to people.”

But Elmendorf doesn’t mind giving deference. Whether he’s paying homage to members and staffers he worked with or making introductions to new members and the new crop of young staffers, the important point is that they are all Democrats.

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And the most important point is that they are in the majority.

“I really love the Congress. I like being up there. I like talking to people. I like the members. I like the senators,” says Elmendorf, who has retained a boyish ebullience despite having suffered in the minority for eight years and worked on two losing presidential campaigns.

“I had been there a long time and [lobbying] just seemed like the natural thing to do, to figure out a way to still be involved in Congress.”

Elmendorf, who turns 47 this Wednesday, has been involved in politics for more than 20 years, after getting his start as a field organizer for Vice President Walter Mondale’s 1984 run for the White House. But he’s still a babe in the woods as far as lobbying goes. After working as a deputy campaign manager to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004, a job he took after managing Gephardt’s campaign, Elmendorf went to work as a lobbyist at Bryan Cave, building a bipartisan lobbying shop with Republican Jack Oliver.

He struck out on his own when Democrats won the House and the Senate in November. After ignoring the party for years, companies were eager to hire Democrats to make inroads with the new majority. Another reason he left, he adds, was that a conflict at Bryan Cave kept him from signing a client he wanted to represent.

Elmendorf Strategies now has three lobbyists — Elmendorf and fellow Democrats Shanti Stanton and Kristi Kennedy — and 14 clients, including blue-chippers like Microsoft, Union Pacific, Northwest Airlines, Shell Oil and the Coalition for Patent Fairness, the client for whom he left Bryan Cave.

Top staffers on Capitol Hill run their own little fiefdoms. Elmendorf found he didn’t have to do much to be busy, as there was always a line of people who wanted him to do something for them, to “suck up,” as he says.

The transition to the hyper-competitive world of K Street, where you ask instead of grant, can be awkward for former aides. That is perhaps especially true for Democratic ones, whose political outlook is not always a natural fit for corporate clients.

But Elmendorf, whose New Jersey family raised him a Democrat, has embraced the job with such enthusiasm that he once made a pitch while riding a bike at the gym at 6:15 a.m. As he pedaled, he read a Washington Post business story about a company with a problem. Elmendorf promptly called its Washington representative on his BlackBerry to say he could help. Now the company is a client, though he won’t say which one.

“A lot of lobbyists I know hate the business part of it, the getting clients, finding an office, dealing with all that stuff. I found the entrepreneurial business aspect of it very interesting, and enjoyable. And I’m good at it,” he says.

“I’m a competitive person, and I like the notion of competing for business and getting it.”

Elmendorf’s success doesn’t surprise his former colleagues, who describe him as even-keeled but driven. Erik Smith, a former Gephardt spokesman who has since started his own communications business, Blue Engine Media, describes his former boss as “unflappable.”

“He’s one of the few people in Washington who can understand an issue not just from the policy perspective, but from the political and media angle as well,” Smith said.

 “If Washington is a meritocracy, then he deserves his success.”

Gregg Rothschild, senior counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Elmendorf understands the political dynamic of the Democratic Caucus, which includes conservative Blue Dogs to liberal progressives and a variety of other interests in between.

 “There aren’t very many people who have that kind of sense of things,” he said. Before moving back to the Hill, Rothschild was a lobbyist at Verizon, which is a client of Elmendorf’s.

Although he’s often associated with the House, Elmendorf first came to Capitol Hill to work in the Senate as a top aide to Washington Democrat Brock Adams after helping manage his campaign. After four years there, he transferred to the House to become chief of staff to former Rep. Dennis Eckhart (D-Ohio), who was then a top Energy and Commerce Committee member.

The staff flow typically runs in the reverse, but Elmendorf said he was attracted by the prospect of running an office. That inspired him to jump to Gephardt’s office, where he worked for two years before the House switched hands in 1994 — a circumstance he describes as “one of the worst you could go through.”

“The hardest part was knowing you are going to lose every day,” he says.

Bill Clinton’s presence in the White House gave House Democrats a bit more influence than they had after President Bush’s election. But House rules are stacked against the minority. Along with Gephardt, Elmendorf worked to keep the caucus unified as it tried to find a way to get back in control.

  “It was always about staying close and making your point,” he says.

The one hole on his résumé is a lack of White House experience, which he hoped to correct in a Kerry presidency. “But that was not an option, so I said, ‘I’ll make some money.’”

Friends and family not keyed into the Washington political scene worried about his choice of profession.

“They were all like, ‘What’s this?’ People out in the country don’t really like lobbyists.”

But Elmendorf likes lobbying.

“I think it’s an honorable profession,” he says. “I like it. I like being a lobbyist.”

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