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Apple faces a pivotal moment in K St. hire

Is it time for Apple to “think different” about lobbying Washington?

That’s the question facing the computer giant as it seeks a new chief for its government affairs office.

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Unlike rivals Google and Microsoft, Apple has taken a low-key approach to lobbying over the years — but that could change under new CEO Tim Cook. 

Many in the influence industry think the company could follow the example of Google, which made a power move last year by hiring former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) as its top lobbyist.

“They have been lucky enough to stay below the radar and not put an oar in the water. But they are so big and successful now that they are much more in the soup now,” said one corporate lobbyist from the tech sector. “It appears to be a corporate decision to stay under the radar, but I think it’s no longer possible. Out of necessity, they are looking to raise their profile.” 

Chief lobbyist Catherine Novelli, Apple’s vice president of worldwide government affairs, is on her way out after being nominated by President Obama to serve in the State Department. Once she’s confirmed, Apple will need a replacement.

Lobbyists mention former Reps. Mary Bono (R-Calif.) and Tom Davis (R-Va.) as potential candidates for the job, but Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Al Gore, doubted that Apple would go for a former lawmaker. 

“That’s not the Apple approach. It’s certainly not consistent with the company’s DNA and its culture,” he said. “They would identify someone who is very much of a discreet behind-the-scenes player who’s very effective.”

Chris Jones, managing partner of CapitolWorks, also said picking a former lawmaker isn’t Apple’s style. 

“From what I know of Catherine, she’s a hard worker and does her job. I think they will pick someone cut from the same cloth — a rock star with great credentials, but someone who keeps their head down,” he said. 

Kristin Huguet, an Apple spokeswoman, declined to comment for this story.

Apple’s lobbying spending is miniscule compared to its tech rivals considering the size of the company, which is the world’s most valuable based on market capitalization.

Apple has spent only about $2.4 million on lobbying so far this year, a jump from the $1.4 million it spent during the first three quarters of 2012 but chump change considering the company is valued at more than $450 billion.

Facebook has spent almost $5 million on lobbying so far in 2013; Google has spent roughly $10 million; and Microsoft has spent more than $7.7 million.

Along with its in-house team, Apple has at least five firms lobbying for the company, including Franklin Square Group, Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock and the Glover Park Group. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) tallied up at least 30 lobbyists working for Apple in 2013.

Google’s K Street army dwarfs Apple’s lobbying brigade. At least 20 firms and more than 100 lobbyists have represented the search engine company in 2013, according to the CRP.

Lehane said Apple is more involved in Washington politics than many people realize.

“They’re very quiet, very stealth-like,” he said. “You don’t hear about it. You don’t even hear the footsteps. But they get done what they need to get done.”

Apple has plenty at stake in Washington. 

Immigration laws affect its ability to attract and retain the most talented employees. 

As Congress considers revisions to the patent system, Apple is waging multibillion-dollar battles with Samsung and other companies that use Google’s Android operating system.

It is also lobbying on taxes, trade, privacy regulations and other issues. 

The company was in the Washington spotlight earlier this year after a Senate report accused Apple of using a network of offshore shell companies to dodge taxes. 

Cook and other top Apple executives agreed to testify before the Senate permanent subcommittee on Investigations — the first time an Apple CEO has appeared before Congress. 

While senators may have raked another company’s executives over the coals for accounting gimmicks, the committee mostly fawned over Apple at the hearing, praising its devices. 

“I love Apple! I love Apple!” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) exclaimed.

Like much of Silicon Valley, Apple is perceived in Washington as a Democratic constituency.

Apple employees gave $308,000 in campaign contributions to Obama for the 2012 campaign, compared to almost $29,000 for GOP candidate Mitt Romney, according to the CRP. Cook gave $2,300 to the 2008 Obama campaign.

The late Steve Jobs, Cook’s predecessor and the company’s visionary, was among a group of tech leaders who dined with Obama in 2011, and the president frequently dropped Jobs’s name as someone to aspire to be on the campaign trail last year. 

Hiring a well-known Republican to run its Washington team could change those perceptions.

“Like Google, Apple is perceived on the Hill as left of center in its politics. You need to try to counterbalance that,” said one Republican lobbyist. “You need to hedge your bets. You have got to be viewed [as] 

bipartisan as much as possible.

“Ds are going to be there for Apple. It’s really needing to find Rs to support you,” the GOP lobbyist said. “That’s going to be the name of the game.”

A Democratic lobbyist, however, said the party in control of the Senate and the White House will have more of an effect on the company’s bottom line.

“They need someone with Democratic credentials,” said the Democratic lobbyist. “Republicans are more inclined to let Apple do whatever it wants, [they] control only one lever of government and are tied in knots in trying to control that one lever. Apple is much more likely to need to work with the Senate or administration to meet business objectives than the House.”