By Kris Kitto - 02/10/09 06:33 PM EST
Della Cronin was visiting the Delaware shore recently when the all-too-familiar lobbyist-bashing game began.
A new acquaintance asked Cronin, a Washington-based education lobbyist, about her line of work.
The new friend then launched into an anti-lobbyist tirade.
Cronin inquired about his profession. A math teacher, he replied.
“And I said, ‘Do you belong to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics?’ ” recalls Cronin, who works for the firm Washington Partners. “And he said, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘Well, I work for you.’ ”
Their conversation shifted to education policy, and, as Cronin puts it, she had “managed to change one person’s mind” about what to think about lobbyists.
In the normally easy chatter about work life, Cronin and her Washington colleagues increasingly find themselves playing defense. Lobbyists saw their image take a deep nosedive after Jack Abramoff’s fraudulent business deals were exposed in 2005, resulting in sweeping ethics reforms for the entire industry. More recently, during the two-year presidential campaign that culminated last year, presidential candidates constantly held up lobbyists as one of the major problems in Washington. And now, President Obama has taken a tough stance on allowing lobbyists to work in his administration.
What remains is an anti-lobbyist atmosphere that has begun to grate on those lobbyists who see themselves as a far cry from the Abramoffs of the influence world. Do-gooder lobbyists of all stripes are out there, forgoing business lunches at the Capital Grille for charity work, representing not-for-profit causes or taking on pro bono clients, working on shoestring budgets and steering clear of the dicey campaign-finance game.
“It’s funny, because I love what I do,” says Kimberly Jones, a lobbyist for The Council for Opportunity in Education, which helps low-income students go to college.
“I’ve only been doing this for two years, and so when I tell people I’m a lobbyist, they kind of make a face, and I kind of have to backpedal,” she says. “There’s definitely a perception problem.”
Her lobbying work for the council is far from perk-laden: “We’re small. We’re a nonprofit; we carry a heavy load,” she says.
Jones and other lobbyists in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors say the root of the negative image is multifarious. High-profile corruption cases like Abramoff’s became media sensations and provided general audiences with a limited — and negative — view of who lobbyists are and what they do. Cronin’s interaction on the Delaware shore underscores many people’s limited knowledge of the lobbying profession, when the truth is that scores of lobbyists work on nearly every issue imaginable and represent a majority of the general public.
“People don’t recognize that nurses have lobbyists,” says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “There are good and bad lobbyists like there are good and bad politicians and good and bad everything else.
“I think we have been demonizing lobbyists for the past two years, and a lot of it isn’t justified. Some of it was,” Sloan says. She says lobbyists “don’t do themselves any favors” by often being big contributors to political campaigns, a role that makes them look as though they’re paying for influence.
Lobbyists are slow to defend their profession publicly because they don’t want to drag their clients into the boxing ring, says Dave Wenhold, a partner at Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies and a contributing opinion writer for The Hill. He hopes to use his perch as president of the American League of Lobbyists to disseminate a more positive message about lobbyists.
Wenhold holds himself up as an example. His lobbying portfolio includes an array of corporate and nonprofit clients. He boasts about helping to get more closed captioning on television for the deaf and hard of hearing, and he talks up his annual business suit drive, called Capitol PurSuit, that he says collects approximately 14,000 used suits for low-income people looking to enter the workforce.
“That’s the story I really wish I could get out,” Wenhold says. “Quite frankly, the media plays up [the scandals].” The media aren’t interested in hearing about lobbyists’ pro bono work or charity events, he says. “That’s a little side story on page 38,” Wenhold says.
Whether or not a clearer picture of lobbyists comes through in the mainstream media, several lobbyists and lawmakers agree the nuances of lobbying are largely understood by arguably the most important audience: members of Congress.
When asked about how they view lobbyists, several lawmakers are unfazed.
“Some are good, some are bad,” Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) says, adding that he supports lobbying because it is protected by the Constitution. “It depends on what they’re looking for that makes the difference.”
“I usually just think about the subject matter they’re lobbying on,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) says. “Any time you can get grassroots lobbyists, that’s the best.”
Said Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.): “You try to see everybody who wants to be seen.”
But even though Capitol Hill serves as a training ground of sorts for future lobbyists — which might explain why some lawmakers are slow to lash out against the industry — seeds of distaste for lobbying still occasionally sprout there.
Jones, the lobbyist for low-income students, recalls an anti-lobbyist e-mail exchange on a listserv that includes Capitol Hill aides. A congressional staffer stood up for lobbyists in the e-mail string but in the same message said: “he would never be a lobbyist and lobbyists have to sell their souls,” she says.
One former staffer who did jump to the lobbying side is Adwoa Ansah. She worked for Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) for three years before becoming a lobbyist for The New England Council, which represents regional interests ranging from business to technology and education.
Ansah says she has found more misunderstanding or disapproval of lobbyists outside the Washington area, but she still took the image into consideration when contemplating the job change.
“I did have to ask myself whether it was worth it based on the perceptions associated with lobbying,” she says.
Ansah says she’s in “a good place where I am,” and now sees lobbyist-bashing as an opportunity to correct the record.
“I use it as a chance to sort of … dispel the myth, so to speak, of lobbyists and the inappropriate dance with lawmakers,” she says. She says her organization does not do political fundraising.
The reality is that lawmakers need lobbyists, says Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest.
“They’ve got staff, but the staff rely on … [lobbyists’] information,” he says.
But even if lawmakers have a better understanding of lobbyists, lobbyists are still stuck with a name that now symbolizes greed and corruption on a national level.
“I agree the word itself has become radioactive,” Ottinger says. “It’s a little bit of a poison.”
He then offers what might be the only real solution for lobbyists who want to resuscitate their image: “We may have to call it something different.”