By Jim Snyder and Silla Brush - 10/28/09 10:00 AM EDT
As president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API), Jack Gerard is the face of the oil and gas industry on Capitol Hill.
He’s well-dressed, well-coiffed, Republican and white. Gerard embodies many of the stereotypes most often associated with oil industry execs.
API is one of several companies and business groups that have made an extra push this year to turn to rank-and-file employees in hopes of adding a populist appeal to their corporate campaigns in Washington.
The oil trade group has flown in everyone from plant managers to rig operators as part of a campaign against public policies it says could threaten jobs. The fly-ins have included women, African-Americans and Hispanic workers in the oil and gas sector.
“We want to show the human face of the industry in the United States,” Gerard told The Hill. API also paid for an extensive Harris poll in 13 states that suggested public anxiety over the House climate bill.
As Congress considers sweeping measures on healthcare, energy and financial services, corporate America isn’t abandoning traditional lobbying tools. Firms still give generously to political campaigns and hire well-connected lobbyists on K Street, but they also are emphasizing their grassroots efforts.
Lawmakers have debated for years whether to require lobbying groups to disclose how much they spend on grassroots efforts. But the calls for greater disclosure have run into criticism from groups saying such a rule would infringe on freedom of speech.
“Spending money on grassroots activities has been a thriving business for years now and has proven to be an effective way of attempting to influence legislation,” said Ken Gross, a lobbying expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
When AT&T organized a letter-writing campaign this month, the website of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was overwhelmed with thousands of comments, not the typical five or 10. AT&T and the cable industry are battling net-neutrality rules backed by FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski that would prevent Internet providers from giving preferential treatment to some types of Web traffic.
In a note to employees, Jim Cicconi, senior vice president of external and legislative affairs, encouraged workers to send a letter to the FCC from their personal e-mail accounts and suggested points to make in the correspondence.
Critics deride some of these advocacy efforts as AstroTurf campaigns, which try to mimic a spontaneous public outcry over a legislative effort.
Environmentalists complained about “Energy Citizens” rallies held around the country last summer that were paid for in part by API to stoke opposition to climate legislation. The groups claim they were AstroTurf campaigns because oil industry employees were encouraged to attend.
Gerard said the effort was designed to activate the industry’s employees, as well as others represented by separate trade groups that also participated in the Energy Citizens campaign.
“The oil and gas sector writ large is just not loved up on the Hill. But our employees are, especially the ones at the plants out in the states,” said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist with Tesoro Corp., a large oil refiner.
Tesoro’s corporate offices are in Texas, but its refineries are located in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Utah and North Dakota, a state that could play an outsized role in the climate debate as home to two Democratic senators who have expressed unease with the cap-and-trade bill.
Tesoro CEO Bruce Smith toured the company’s refineries this summer to talk about the House climate bill, noting that the free allowances the industry would receive don’t come close to covering its emissions. Refiners say the climate bill could force many domestic companies out of business.
The company has also set up a website, www.ActTesoro.com, where employees can see whom they should call, send an e-mail or write a letter.
“We as an industry have not done a good job of integrating our employees into our advocacy efforts,” Brown said. “We are realizing we have these untapped resources — our employees — to help us.”
AT&T’s memo to employees, meanwhile, says that the Internet is working fine and shouldn’t be burdened by “unnecessarily harmful regulations.”
Brown said Tesoro employees have been eager to participate in the new grassroots campaign. At some plants as many as 80 percent of the workers have used the new site.
“They get that if there is a negative impact on our sector it will have a negative impact on their jobs,” Brown said.
Grassroots tactics also have come into play in one of the messiest lobbying duels in town. UPS, the shipping giant, reached out to its employees this year to help make its case in favor of legislation that would make it easier for workers at rival FedEx to unionize.
The two companies already are major players in Washington: FedEx has spent more than $11 million on lobbying this year, while UPS has spent more than $7 million, according to federal records.
Malcolm Berkley, spokesman for UPS, said the company answered questions employees had about the issue and helped organize a letter-writing campaign with its 350,000 workers. It was the first time in recent years that the company organized such an effort, Berkley said.
“Our employees were not forced. If they did not want to write letters, they did not have to,” Berkley said. “For the vast majority of our employees, they supported this initiative.”