Washington lobbyist Jack Quinn answers 20 Questions

I recently sat down with Democratic lobbyist Jack Quinn, of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, to hear his views on the political landscape. Although he worked in the Clinton White House for four and a half years as Al Gore’s chief of staff, followed by a stint as counsel to the president, he won’t declare Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as his top pick.

Quinn worked on what was formerly called the Senate Hunger Committee in the late 1960s when he was a college student at Georgetown. He also worked for the late Sen. Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.) in the early 1970s. He practiced law for 20 years at Arnold & Porter before he opened his firm in 2000.

Is it safe to make campaign predictions these days?
“I have long said that the only thing you can be certain of is that you will be surprised. One makes predictions at one’s peril, as was so convincingly demonstrated when the New Hampshire results surprised everyone in the political world.”

Did you want Hillary to win New Hampshire?
“I am and have been throughout this campaign season supportive of all the Democratic candidates.”

Isn’t that the safe answer?
“It’s the honest answer. A number of candidates are people with whom I have worked. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help elect a Democratic nominee. We really, really, really are facing a critical election and this is an opportunity to reverse a national decline.”

Do you have a favorite?
“I’m not officially or unofficially supporting anyone.”

Have the Clintons come to you and asked for your support?
“I have contributed to Sen. Clinton’s campaign.”

That isn’t seen as a ringing endorsement?
“I [have offered a] ringing endorsement to Sen. Clinton, Sen. [Barack] Obama [Ill.], and [former] Sen. [John] Edwards [N.C.] just as I did Sen. [Joseph] Biden [Del.], Sen. [Chris] Dodd [Conn.] and [New Mexico Gov.] Bill Richardson.”

But you haven’t contributed to all of them.
“I have contributed to others — Sen. Biden, Dodd. I think I contributed to Gov. Richardson.”

Poor Obama.
“I would happily contribute to Sen. Obama, but he’s not taking contributions from registered lobbyists.”

Do you think lobbyists get a bad rap in D.C. and elsewhere?
“I do.”

Unfairly so?
“Yeah. I think 99 percent of the members of Congress and lobbyists I know, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, are good, honest, decent people. There are a small handful of bad apples who I think have tarnished the reputation of the Congress and people like me who advocate for different interests.”

What do you think of the new fundraising rules and the fact that you can’t take a member out for a big steak?
“The rules are well-intentioned but missed the mark. I don’t think a member could be corrupted by an $8 hamburger.”

Then what is the problem?
“The problem is the way we finance campaigns in this country. We have to go to a system where no one with a stake in the political outcome can contribute to a legislator who is casting votes in that public policy debate. You would have campaigns funded by the public.”

Do you think that will ever happen?
“It’s quite unlikely, but it’s worth pressing for because it would help people view Congress as they should — as a group of serious-minded individuals who … are not here to feather their own nests.”

Do movies like “Charlie Wilson’s War” help that cause?

“That’s not a remotely fair representation of the men and women who make up the U.S. Congress.”

So it’s a little like the bad-apple lobbyists we were talking about earlier.
“Congress does not have the standing it deserves. People in my business are much maligned. I would remind you that the bad apples who broke the public trust — the so-called Abramoff scandal — were prosecuted and sent to prison under the system of laws that we had before the new ethics reform. So the system we had, in fact, worked.”

Tell me, do you miss being able to go out for a steak with a lawmaker?
“Not at all.”

Not your thing?
“Our business model was never very focused on entertainment.”

Why do you think the Republicans are struggling so much?
“I’m not sure you have enough space for me to answer that. The Bush presidency has been, in almost every respect, a failure. Period. Iraq has been a disaster, and we have taken our eye off al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Little has been accomplished in the areas of climate change, energy independence and healthcare.”

What about GOP leaders?
“The Republicans were turned out of majority status in the Congress because they were a do-nothing Congress that barely made time each week to convene in Washington.”

Is there a Republican out there whom you respect intellectually?
“There are a great many. What has troubled me is the unwillingness of the Republican Party to engage in a promise of compromise.”

Who would you name by name, those Republicans whom you respect?
“Sen. [Richard] Lugar [Ind.]. Sen. [John] McCain [Ariz.]. I’m sure there are others.”

Does the idea of a Republican president in 2008 disturb you?
“Yeah. I think the country urgently needs a Democratic president. This is not a time in this country when we need a divided government.”

So all Democrats all the time.
“We need a Democratic House, Senate and presidency with a political mandate to get things done, at least for some period of time.”

Do you think Democrats are better people than Republicans?
“No. I don’t think either party has a claim to having better people, or a more moral outlook.”

To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Betsy Rothstein at (202)628-8516 or email at betsyr@thehill.com