Dem strategist, fundraiser helps utility group recharge their political power

Finding work can be tough in a recession, but it helps if Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a reference and Google CEO Eric Schmidt acts as career counselor.

With that combination, Brian Wolff, a Democratic political strategist and party fundraiser who helped Pelosi (D-Calif.) chart a path to the Speaker’s chair, was bound to land well when he left Capitol Hill.

But where Wolff landed was a bit of surprise: as a lobbyist at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade group of electric utilities that had a reputation for opposing climate change legislation and leaning Republican.

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Its president and CEO, Tom Kuhn, was George W. Bush’s roommate at Yale, going on to become a leading fundraiser for his presidential campaigns.

Wolff described the process that led to him accepting a job working for a Bush “Pioneer” as an “evolution.”

“I thought to myself, ‘George Bush’s Yale roommate? What would we have in common?’ ” says Wolff.

The five-month process that began last December included consultations with Schmidt, whom Wolff had met at a fundraiser when he was working on Al Gore’s presidential campaign, and Dan Reicher, a former Clinton administration official who is now the director of climate change and energy initiatives at Google.

What Reicher and some environmental activists told him was that EEI wasn’t the staid outfit one might expect of a group that represented utilities, a largely regulated sector of the economy. The group and its members had been working internally to develop a compromise on climate legislation for two years.

And as it turned out, Wolff and Kuhn hit it off.

“It was literally like sitting on the couch with my father for two hours. It was never like an interview,” Wolff said. “You meet him and learn a lot from him.”

Wolff, who at the time was splitting duties as Pelosi’s political adviser and executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said he received assurances from Kuhn that EEI was committed to passing a climate bill, a policy area the political strategist had taken an interest in.

For EEI, the benefits of hiring Wolff were obvious. Like most other trade groups, EEI had favored Republicans in its political giving when they were in the majority.

Even in the 2008 cycle, two years after Democrats took over Congress, EEI’s political action committee had given more to Republican candidates. So far this cycle, the trade group has donated more than twice as much to Democrats as Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

EEI’s lobbying team, meanwhile, was dominated by Republicans at a time when President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders were preparing to push a bill that would curb carbon dioxide emissions, legislation that would greatly affect EEI members’ businesses.

In Wolff, EEI had found a good person to carry its message on Capitol Hill: a man who could rightfully claim some measure of credit for getting members elected.

“Brian has built off a strong foundation and taken it to the next level,” said Melissa Lavinson, a lobbyist at Pacific Gas & Electric. “Brian has great relationships with many members on the Hill and leadership.”

As part of his work at the DCCC, Wolff had developed the infrastructure and plotlines many candidates relied on to win election. Pelosi called Wolff a “dear friend” in a statement after he was hired by EEI.

Wolff said he learned from the Speaker how to develop lasting relationships and build coalitions of support among groups that may not have much in common.

“Nancy has a really great way of realizing that people have a lot of great ideas,” Wolff said.

At EEI, which has spent $8 million on lobbying this year, Wolff gets credit for opening new lines of communication to left-leaning organizations that had seen utilities as antagonists in their push to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

“He brings an almost unrivaled understanding of how to build coalitions to get policy ideas done in Washington,” said Joshua Freed, a climate specialist at

The Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. “Contrary to popular belief, it is not a process where a battering ram usually works.”

“He is helping EEI be a big tent,” said one House Democratic committee aide.

Another benefit of hiring Wolff is that as a political adviser who officially worked for the campaign committee, he wasn’t bound by tough revolving-door rules that typically keep top staff aides and former members from lobbying for a year.

Democrats passed that ethics law after hammering the “culture of corruption” they said developed under the Republican majority during the 2006 campaign, a strategy Wolff helped to develop at the DCCC.

Wolff’s relationships with Democrats were evident in the weeks before the House vote on the climate legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.). He was one of the few outsiders invited to a meeting that included White House climate czar Carol Browner, legislative liaison Philip Schiliro and top Democratic staff aides who plotted strategy on how to get the climate bill passed.

“He was really key to our success on the House floor,” the aide said.

During the vote, leaders looked to Wolff and the relationships EEI had with members to help them measure their level of support.

“He knows what issues members face when they go back to their districts,” Freed said. “Having that kind of sophistication and savvy in the room is an enormous advantage and elevates the ability of EEI to help play a constructive role in the process.”

The House bill largely adopted the formula developed by EEI to allocate the pollution permits that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars to utilities.

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That was a big win for EEI, although the legislation also included more aggressive emissions reductions than EEI favored.

After the vote, Freed joined Wolff on a tour of nuclear power plants in France. On the trip, he said Wolff huddled with electric utility executives in the back of the bus about how climate legislation can pass the Senate.

Wolff said the executives were disappointed there wasn’t more support for nuclear power in the House climate bill. Not to worry, Wolff counseled, they’d have better luck in the Senate.

Since then, the climate legislation’s principal author, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), wrote an op-ed in The New York Times with a key Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, that called for additional support for nuclear power in the climate bill.