Ex-Boehnerland chief lands in private equity

Ex-Boehnerland chief lands in private equity
© Greg Nash

Mike Sommers is getting used to life after John BoehnerJohn BoehnerMarch is the biggest month for GOP in a decade House markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving MORE.

For two decades, Sommers was a fixture in the orbit of the former Speaker. Rising from a district intern in Ohio eventually to chief of staff, Sommers spent his entire career — minus one year in the George W. Bush White House — in BoehnerJohn BoehnerMarch is the biggest month for GOP in a decade House markup of ObamaCare repeal bill up in the air Conservatives to Congress: Get moving MORE’s office.

But with the Ohio Republican’s exit from Congress, Sommers is taking on a new role. In January, he was named president and CEO of the Private Equity Growth Capital Council (PEGCC), the leading lobbying force for the private equity industry in Washington.

To hear the 40-year-old describe it, it’s not that big of a transition.

“It’s sure different than working on Capitol Hill, but I’m finding that a lot of the skills you learn working on Capitol Hill translate very nicely,” he said during an interview at The Hill’s offices.

Those skills will be put to the test: Private equity has emerged as a frequent political target both in Washington and on the presidential campaign trail. 

Mitt Romney was attacked for his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital during his presidential run in 2012. And now, the equity industry is trying to fend off efforts from members of both parties to trim a coveted tax incentive — the “carried interest” break, which enables private equity and hedge fund executives to pocket profits at the lower capital gains rate.

President Obama has repeatedly proposed doing away with it. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonNew DNC chair Perez will attend Trump's speech as former rival's guest Dem questions FBI chief's commitment to Russia review Issa backs special prosecutor on Russia if justified MORE has singled out the break as a top target in her tax plan, calling it a loophole that allows millionaires and billionaires to pay a lower rate than average working Americans. And top Republican hopeful Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJake Tapper falls — no, leaps — into Trump’s trap Facts still matter in the age of Trump and fake news Overnight Tech: Dems fire back on net neutrality, internet privacy | Trump dodges on Time Warner-AT&T | Group pushes Bitcoin rival | Emails detail Uber's fight with California MORE, while less specific, has argued hedge fund and investment types should have a higher tax bill.

Despite being squarely in the sights of some powerful players, Sommers said he is confident the industry can stem the tide.

“We’ve had votes on this, really for the last 10 years in the Congress, and we’ve been successful every single time on this issue,” he said. “That’s just something we’re going to have to always guard against.”

Sommers has actually been working in Washington longer than the PEGCC has existed; the group was founded in 2007 as the industry sought to have a bigger presence in Washington. In his new role, he brings wealth of experience, knowledge and influential contacts to an industry group that knows it will be playing defense.

Sommers described himself as a “flame-throwing conservative” when he got to Washington but said the bipartisan credibility he earned during his time on Capitol Hill will be an asset for the private equity industry.

Indeed, in the group’s statement announcing his hire, Sommers received praise not only from Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanDem leaders try ‘prebuttal’ on Trump Ryan, McConnell predict ‘positive, upbeat’ message from Trump Retired generals urge Congress not to cut funds for diplomacy MORE (R-Wis.) but also from Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House.

“It’s no secret that most of the support that the PEGCC and the private equity industry gets is on the Republican side, but we have a lot of Democrats in this industry,” said Sommers. “We are an organization that’s focused on policy, not on politics.”

The private equity post now held by Sommers has brought a substantial payday in the past.

His predecessor, John Steven Judge, earned more than $1.16 million in 2014, according to the most recently available tax forms. Judge stepped down Aug. 15 after more than three years at the helm of the organization. 

David Schnittger, who worked for Boehner for 21 years and most recently served as his deputy chief of staff, called Sommers “the kind of person who people want to be led by.”

“He’s not the kind of person who gets into the leadership role by angling for things or elbowing people out of the way.”

Sommers conceded he fielded “quite a few” calls from headhunters last year when Boehner abruptly announced his resignation.

He said he’s running his new organization in the same style as Boehnerland, organizing staff retreats and coming up with a new mission and goals.

“The best place for me was to go to a trade association so I could work on a team — within a team — and build something that I could be proud of,” he said, “which is similar to what I did in the Speaker’s operation.”

Among the objectives for the new chief executive is expanding the reach of the organization beyond just the largest private equity firms. Although it includes giants KKR, the Blackstone Group and the Carlyle Group as members, Sommers told The Hill he wants to bring smaller firms into the fray.

“We really need to speak for the whole private equity industry, not just a segment of the private equity industry,” he said.

Across the United States, there are more than 4,000 private equity firms, he says, including in lesser-known markets like Nashville, Tenn., and Charlottesville, Va. Sommers says that in order to better advocate for the industry, he’ll be part of an aggressive effort to boost its membership ranks.

Currently, the PEGCC has just 37 private equity firm members, along with 19 “associate members” that aren’t in the industry. 

If the PEGCC can expand, it could make it easier for the industry to find allies in Congress.

“There’s private equity investment in every single congressional district, whether a member of Congress knows that or not,” Sommers said. “I want to be a part of helping to tell that story to members of Congress and their staffs and influencing the political policy process.”

Colleagues say Sommers is know for his level-headedness and sense of humor, citing his Mr. T impression, an inexplicable love of the Canadian national anthem and having “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond at the ready should a karaoke opportunity arise.

While the Chicago native’s move to K Street also comes with a major pay raise, he argues that it’s an extension of his desire to influence policy in a meaningful way — something he has been doing for the last 20 years.

“I wanted to still have an impact. I was too young to stop learning and not to have an impact anymore,” Sommers said.