Lobbyist Tony Podesta flies high on K Street during the Obama era

While much of K Street has seen a dip during the recession, Tony Podesta has managed to buck the trend.

His firm, the Podesta Group, has earned more in lobbying fees in nine months than it did in all of 2008, has nearly doubled its staff and is expanding its office space by one floor.

ADVERTISEMENT
It helps that Podesta is arguably the most recognizable Democratic name on the Washington lobbying scene.

Podesta is modest about his success. In an interview with The Hill, he called lobbying “a people business” and credited his success to his staff, listing off a bipartisan reel of fresh recruits from Capitol Hill.

“It’s not like once you buy a Ford, you always buy a Ford,” Podesta said. “You are only as good as what you did last month, so you need to keep delivering for your clients every day, every week. We have a group of people who can really make that happen.”

But like the automaker in Detroit, Podesta is the brand — and it’s one that goes far in Washington, especially these days.

There’s Tony, a former aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who started his firm in 1988. His wife is in charge of her own bustling lobby shop, Heather Podesta + Partners. And his brother, John Podesta, was a Clinton White House chief of staff, the Obama transition head and the president and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress think tank — supplier of many of the administration’s senior aides.

It’s a family name that carries substantial weight in the nation’s capital.

“Tony and his group are the right people at the right time in the right place,” said Nick Allard, co-chairman of Patton Boggs’s lobbying practice. An action-oriented White House, coupled with an economic crisis, has led to a huge demand for K Street’s services, with Podesta at the forefront. Allard emphasized that Podesta is no “flash in the pan” and has “staying power.”

“Tom Boggs invented the lawyer-lobbyist model and Tony perfected it. They are probably the two giants of the modern practice. There is no one else in the same zip code,” Allard said.

Considering his Democratic ties and bullish work ethic, Podesta hasn’t suffered the stagnation that appears to be afflicting much of his chosen profession.

Perennial K Street powerhouses, such as Patton Boggs, Dutko Worldwide and Quinn Gillespie & Associates, have seen little growth or quarterly declines as corporations tightened their belts during the downturn. Trade associations have witnessed multiple layoffs, with the American Petroleum Institute being the latest victim. And the number of lobbyists in town has apparently shrunk by almost 1,400 from the 2008 number, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Yet by every metric, the Podesta Group is growing. The firm has made more than $18 million in lobbying fees so far in 2009 — nearly 17 percent more than its 2008 take, and the year is not done yet. It hired 29 more staff members in 2009, close to doubling the firm’s size. And it has registered 55 clients so far this year, almost twice as many as it signed up in 2008, according to lobbying disclosure records.

Not wanting to slow down, Podesta said the firm has to be careful in its expansion.

“I don’t want the experience for our clients to be any different from what it was when we had half as many people,” he said.

Podesta is even adding another floor of office space to the firm’s downtown G Street base. Part of the office expansion includes a roof deck, which Podesta jokes could be a bocce court but resistance from staff has put that plan on ice.

Podesta’s success, though, especially at a time of record unemployment and the Obama administration’s clampdown on K Street, has made him a target for his profession’s excesses. Earlier this year, a trio of high-profile columnists — Thomas Frank of The Wall Street Journal, Frank Rich of The New York Times and Al Hunt of Bloomberg — criticized the lobbyist by name in broadsides against K Street, showing how Washington has not changed under the new president.

“There is something uniquely depressing about the fact that the National Portrait Gallery’s version of the Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster previously belonged to a pair of lobbyists. Depressing because Mr. Obama’s Washington was not supposed to be the lobbyists‘ Washington, the place we learned to despise during the last administration,” Frank wrote in his Sept. 30 WSJ column.

ADVERTISEMENT
Tony and Heather Podesta donated Shepard Fairey’s famous “Hope” portrait of President Obama to the National Portrait Gallery. Podesta said he could have kept the painting in his office but instead gave it to the public. He believes it has become the most popular piece of art in Washington, with people often lining up to see it.

“The criticism struck me as perverse because I was attacked for an act of charity,” Podesta said, adding: “I am a public figure with thick skin.”

Podesta seems sensitive to the knocks his profession has taken since Jack Abramoff became a household name. Though never mentioning the jailed lobbyist by name, Podesta says his job is to advocate for clients based on substance.

“We have never taken members to my hunting lodge. I don’t own one. Or my golf club. I don’t belong to one,” Podesta said. “I have never owned a restaurant where I take members to. I haven’t gone to Scotland or England on my plane.”

Podesta has also made light of the poor image of lobbyists that Obama highlighted during the campaign while promising “change” in Washington. Podesta and his wife handed out scarlet L’s at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last year.

Still, Podesta knows Obama is serious about distancing himself from K Street. While he had one Oval Office meeting with President Bill Clinton, “I don’t imagine I will have one in this administration,” Podesta said.

Podesta said he doesn’t feel unwelcome by the administration, having visited the White House twice and the Old Executive Office Building three times so far, according to visitor records released by the administration.

He also said his firm is happy to abide by whatever lobbying rules the administration sets. The White House has taken a number of actions against K Street, such as limiting contacts between lobbyists and administration officials on stimulus projects, banning them from serving on federal advisory boards and enacting a general prohibition on lobbyists being hired as political appointees.

One restriction Podesta supports is the administration not allowing its former officials to lobby it once they leave government service. That will prevent new lobbying competition from emerging, he said.

One limit he placed on himself was not lobbying his brother John when he headed up Obama’s transition team, a family tradition that carried over from his days in the Clinton White House. Despite having dinner every Sunday night, Podesta said the two brothers do not mix their business, calling it “a church-state thing.”

“I wouldn’t give him his briefing papers to tell him what to do for the next week from the point of view of my clients. We just have dinner,” Podesta said.

As Democrats face a tough election race in 2010, Podesta will help as much as he can as one of the party’s more generous donors. Typically giving the maximum amount allowable every election cycle, the lobbyist has already made more than $65,000 in campaign contributions this year and has bundled donations for at least four Democratic candidates, according to Federal Election Commission records.

He also hosts fundraisers almost every other week, Podesta estimates. The demand seems never to cease, and sometimes he needs to say no to campaign fundraising.

But Podesta knows that while some politicians are passing through, he’s here for the long haul.

“President Obama will hopefully be here for eight years,” Podesta said. “And when he leaves, we’ll still be here.”