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K Street’s holdouts are partisan, proud

Greg Nash

Bipartisanship: Who needs it?

That’s the ethos at a number of major K Street firms that have spurned the idea of playing to both sides of the aisle, despite the risk of losing influence and clients during changeovers in power.

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Many of the most profitable shops in Washington proudly fly the colors of Republicans or Democrats and say their businesses are all the better for it.

“For every client that is seeking a bipartisan firm, there is another client that understands they need the type of help that an all-GOP firm can best provide,” said Phil Anderson, president of Navigators Global. “This is the team we play for, and it works for us.” 

While GOP-leaning shops are more common in Washington, several lobby firms have built their business on blue-team credentials.

“What we are really we are good at, what we are known for, is explaining business to Democrats and explaining Democrats to business,” said Heather Podesta of Heather Podesta + Partners. “There is real space for a pro-business, Democratic consulting firm.”

There was a time when the partisan lobby firm appeared to be a dying breed. Many top-earning firms embraced a bipartisan model to ensure they would have sway no matter who controlled the White House or Congress.

The bipartisan trend appeared to accelerate after the political earthquake of the 2006 election, when Democrats seized control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 1994 Republican Revolution. The GOP retaking the House in 2010 only seemed to reinforce K Street’s taste for bipartisanship. 

Jack Quinn, a former Clinton White House counsel, made one of the most prominent moves into two-party lobbying in 2000, when he joined forces with GOP operative Ed Gillespie to form Quinn Gillespie & Associates.

“At the time, that was pretty novel,” said Quinn, who is now chairman and co-founder of QGA Public Affairs. 

That bipartisan tradition continues at the firm. Quinn noted his office is now situated next to John Feehery’s, who is president of the firm’s communications practice and a former senior aide to ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Quinn said being bipartisan has helped his firms give better advice to clients.

“We try to take into account the thoughts of leadership from both parties when advising our clients. … We sort of leaven each other’s judgment for the client,” Quinn said.

But many shops are thriving despite playing on one side of the aisle.

Several of them are growing and taking in millions of dollars in fees at a time when the bigger, bipartisan firms are struggling to show growth and overall lobbying spending has declined. Consider:

• Elmendorf | Ryan, an all-Democratic lobby firm, earned $10 million in lobbying fees last year, a jump over the $8.6 million that the firm took in 2012.

• Republican shop Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock took in $11.6 million in lobbying revenue for 2013, a spike from its $10.8 million from the prior year.

•The all-Republican Clark Geduldig Cranford Nielsen earned a healthy haul of more than $5.1 million for lobbying fees in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP).

• Avenue Solutions, staffed by all former Democratic aides, earned more than $3.5 million in 2013, according to the CRP.

The multimillion-dollar tallies came despite the realities of divided government, which has made moving legislation difficult.

Lobbyists said that, even with a split in party control, partisan firms are valuable because they can provide specialized services, such as outreach to a certain lawmaker or official.

And more often than not, all-Democratic firms will partner with their Republican colleagues when needed. Elmendorf | Ryan, for example, often partners with Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock and other firms to cover all the partisan bases.

“A subset of our success is that we will work with anyone — member, staff, think tank — on a shared goal. So we work with Republicans on better sentencing policies, LGBT issues, comprehensive immigration reform,” said Robert Raben, founder and president of the Raben Group, staffed by Democrats.

“You don’t have to be an R or a D to work with an R or a D. You have to want to work with people on a shared goal, which we do in spades.”

Some shops flirted becoming bipartisan in the past but decided against it. Navigators Global joined with Roberti Associates — run by Vin Roberti, a well-known fundraiser and adviser to Democrats — in December 2008 after President Obama’s election, but the firms parted ways about two years later.

Anderson said lawmakers and their staff are often more trusting of lobby teams that have a partisan affiliation.

“From our lobbying experience — and having briefly tried both models — there is a higher degree of mutual trust and common interest between members, staff and consultants in an all-GOP environment. Same holds true for who you chose to be in business with,” Anderson said.  

Some lobbyists said they put party first, even when considering which clients to take on. One all-Republican firm turned down a client with renewable energy interests because it didn’t jibe with GOP policies.

“We couldn’t take them as a client because we couldn’t go to our friends and say with a straight face to them that they should support subsidies,” a lobbyist at the firm said. “If Republicans were supportive of handing these government checks to these industries, we would support them. But they don’t, so we don’t take them on as clients so to not give Republicans a headache down the road.” 

Some shops lean toward one party while hiring a staffer or two who can serve as an ambassador to the other party.

BGR Group, which is mostly Republicans, has one Democratic lobbyist in Jonathan Mantz, who was national finance director for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) 2008 presidential campaign. 

Forbes-Tate, named after two former senior Clinton White House aides, has two Republicans among its cohort of 11 lobbyists.

“It has helped no doubt. We will always be viewed as a Democratic firm, but we have looked on where we have gaps that we needed to fill,” Jeff Forbes, founding partner of Forbes-Tate, said.

Having a GOP name can mean business coming in the door for Democratic lobbyists too. Former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.), chairman of the Moffett Group, said that he hired Mike Kelley, a former aide to ex-Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), after the GOP won the House majority in 2010.  

“For us, having Mike has been important to keeping clients and getting new clients,” Moffett said. “In the ‘dark days’ for me — 2001 to 2006 — it was a wall-to-wall Republican Congress, and it was very hard for me.”