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Wyden’s rise starts K Street bidding war

There’s a Ron Wyden shortage on K Street.

The Oregon Democrat’s ascent to Senate Finance Committee chairman has set off a bidding war among major lobby shops, which are willing to pay top dollar to land insiders from “Wyden World.”  

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One former Wyden staffer said job offers started rolling in almost immediately after Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the previous Finance chief, announced he would be retiring in 2015.

“A variety of companies, law firms and consulting firms have talked to me or wanted to talk to me,” said Stephanie Kennan, a senior vice president of federal public affairs at McGuireWoods Consulting who served as a health policy adviser to Wyden.  

President Obama’s surprise selection of Baucus for ambassador to China started Wyden’s chairmanship earlier than expected, raising the stakes even further for the influence industry.

“It started with the announcement that Baucus wasn’t running again. It accelerated significantly when Baucus’s nomination of being ambassador to China was made public,” Kennan said.

Kennan said she never seriously considered leaving McGuireWoods, where she has spent two years building out the firm’s health practice.

But the attempt to steal her away represents the scramble underway to cozy up to Wyden, who now controls one of the most powerful committees in all of Congress, with sweeping jurisdiction over taxes and commerce.

Wyden’s predecessor, Baucus, had an extensive network of former staffers in the lobbying sector, creating what became known as “Baucus Land.”

But only a small group of Wyden staffers has gone through the revolving door to the influence industry, according to an analysis of lobbying data from the Center for Responsive Politics and public records by The Hill. 

Among the few that have made the jump to lobbying are Alexander Perkins, who is an in-house lobbyist for Chrysler; Ben McMakin, who also worked for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and now leads Van Ness Feldman’s public policy practice; and Bruce Ehrle, who lobbies at the American Health Quality Association.

Wyden staffers are known to be fiercely loyal, with some staying on for more than a decade.

“Staffers very much mirror the members, and Wyden is not a K Street kind of guy, so people work there don’t tend to go out downtown,” says Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group who headhunts for law and lobbying jobs. “By the law of supply and demand, that’s where the value increases.”

 Wyden loyalists are valuable commodities because the senator now holds one of the most powerful gavels. President Obama’s healthcare law went through the Finance Committee, as have countless other big-ticket bills over the years,

“They are going to be more prized because of the access,” said Julian Ha, practice leader at Heidrick & Struggles. “Wyden is going to take more of a liberal view at times, so business will want someone who will be able to present alternative positions.”

The Republican-dominated BGR Group scored a coup last week when it landed Josh Lamel, who previously advised Wyden on finance, budget and technology issues.

The hire of Lamel, who previously worked as the vice president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCI), made BGR one of the few lobby shops with a Wyden veteran on its payroll.

Signaling the importance of the hire, Lamel will become just the second Democrat on the BGR roster, alongside Jonathan Mantz, who was national finance director for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) 2008 presidential campaign. 

“Josh brings significant policy expertise to the table, and he is going to be a great member of the BGR team,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R), BGR’s founder, said in a statement.

Josh Kardon, a lobbyist at Capitol Counsel who spent 17 years as Wyden’s chief of staff, said lobby shops shouldn’t expect that their staffing moves will have any sway with the senator, who is known for doing things his own way.

“There isn’t a soul who can convince Sen. Wyden to do something that conflicts with the interests of his state. If someone hires a former Wyden staffer for that task, they’re wasting their money,” Kardon said.  

Some Wyden staffers said they are put off by the notion that they can cash in on their relationship to him.

Kennan said the firms that inquired about her services seemed only to value her relationship with Wyden, with whom she worked for 10 years, rather than the breadth of policy experience she brings to the table.

“Different firms want you to say different things, and want you to use your experience and your relationships differently,” she said. “I have the opportunity [at McGuireWoods] to do other things than be just the Ron Wyden person.”

One recruiter said Wyden’s approach to legislating upends the K Street playbook.

“Wyden is a bit of an odd duck on the Hill, making decisions primarily on his own view of the merits, which reduces the value of access and lobbying,” said Larry Latourette, a principal at Lateral Link.