By Erik Wasson - 03/12/13 09:00 AM EDT
Thirty-five minutes after meeting John Guzik, he springs a surprise.
“Something you don’t know about me: I’m blind,” he said. “I’m the blind lobbyist.”
Having not noticed, a reporter questions his own powers of observation.
He revealed some of the special techniques he uses to maintain his status as one of Washington’s top tax lobbyists despite being legally blind.
One of his devices enlarges printed handouts for viewing on his computer, while his iPhone reads out emails.
“When I first started lobbying, I had a hard time admitting it. So my assistant would take a tape recorder that looked like a cellphone and put my schedule on the tape recorder,” he said. “Now my schedule is printed on 72-point print and I can barely read that, but my clients all know.”
Guzik served as chief of staff to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) from 1991-2001, and they remain very close.
Camp said he is amazed by Guzik.
“He is still the hard-driving John Guzik I’ve always known,” he said.
Camp is pushing forward with a plan to rewrite the entire tax code, the first overhaul since 1986, and regularly confers with Guzik.
“John’s judgment and advice is something I respect,” Camp said.
Guzik co-founded The Franklin Partnership in 2005. The boutique lobbying firm has grown, and Guzik now represents some 3,000 small manufacturers.
The Precision Metalforming Association (PMA), the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA) and the Precision Machine Products Association are major clients.
“We are not the size of [the National Association of Manufacturers] but we are getting darn close,” he said, adding that Capitol Hill “now calls us and says ‘what do you think of these issues?’ ”
Guzik says tax reform has a good chance of happening in 2013 despite divided government and the failed fiscal talks between President Obama and Congress.
“I think it’s the perfect storm. You’ve got the president looking for his legacy ... you’ve got Camp, who is term-limited as Ways and Means chairman ... you have [Sen.] Max Baucus [(D-Mont.)], who is up for reelection and has to appeal to a broader electorate in Montana,” Guzik said.
“If it happens, it could happen quickly,” he said.
Camp and Baucus are looking to simplify the code and to lower rates while eliminating special-interest tax breaks. Whether such a reform raises new tax revenue remains a sorely contested point.
Guzik sees room for compromise.
“The core principle on the House Republican side is budget-neutral. But I think as long as it’s within reason, there’s some room for negotiation,” he said.
The small manufacturers that Guzik represents use six tax breaks that are on the table for elimination.
“When we have met with Senate Finance and Ways and Means staff ... they said ‘which one of your children are you willing to give up?’ And we didn’t know the answer to that question. So we put together a survey,” Guzik said.
Some of the preliminary results have been surprising.
“Everybody in this town loves the [research and development] tax credit. When the bill is introduced, it has 200 co-sponsors. But when we surveyed our members, only 41 percent used it,” he said.
By comparison, a break that allows members to more quickly write off equipment purchases — a break known as bonus depreciation — was being used by 88 percent of Guzik’s clients.
“When we met with folks from the committee and office level, they say ‘we’ve never seen this stuff before,’ ” Guzik said.
Guzik said the accomplishment for his clients of which he is most proud came after the 2008 financial crisis.
“Back in ’09 when banks weren’t lending to manufacturers ... we worked to establish the Small Business Lending Fund,” he said. “That was truly a rewarding opportunity.”
It has been trickier justifying his past pursuit of appropriations earmarks to his mom.
“She thinks a lobbyist is below used-car salesmen in the hierarchy of respected professions,” he said.
But after he helped secure an earmark for cancer research in Detroit, his mom saw that earmarks are not all bad.
The current ban on earmarks has hurt Guzik’s business, but he sees the ban as temporary.
“I think members are increasingly frustrated having to deal with funds being granted by an administration whether you agree with an administration or not,” Guzik said.
His path to The Franklin Partnership runs through state politics and campaign work, something unexpected for a former international relations major.
“I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to become ambassador to the then-Soviet Union, so I had to figure out what I was going to do. I started working on campaigns in college,” he said.
He recalls getting close to Camp later when Camp was running a reelection campaign for former Rep. Bill Schuette (R-Mich.) in 1986 and Guzik was working in Pennsylvania.
“We had the same campaign software, which was really bad. And so we would talk at night and figure out how to fix our campaign software,” Guzik said.
The relationship continued until Camp himself ran for Congress and tapped Guzik to run his first campaign.
Camp remembers meeting Guzik a bit differently.
“I met him the very first time, when he was running for youth vice chair for the state party. And I was just a volunteer. I saw how he conducted himself and ran that campaign. ... Later when I ran for Congress, I thought that he would be a great campaign manager. And he was,” Camp said.
Guzik, with his long campaign experience, says voter participation in primaries needs to be increased.
“Republicans have had challenges nominating flawed candidates in primaries because turnout numbers are so horrible,” he said.
Guzik said he is “intrigued” by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a presidential candidate in 2016 and said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) could make a strong run. He said that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) risks being overexposed too early and that Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) needs to show he can win his home state.
He emphasized that he likes Ryan and sees him becoming House Speaker one day.
Guzik has advice for those looking to get into politics.
“My advice is move up the ladder of success in your state, and then move over to Washington because you’ll come in at a higher level,” he said.
For Capitol Hill staffers, Guzik said they need to put in serious time before jumping to K Street.
“Don’t jump too early,” he warned. “If you give it more time, the rewards will be greater in the end.”