Home | Conventions 2012 | News

No ‘Scarlet L’ for lobbyists in Charlotte

Lobbyists aren’t staying away from the Democratic National Convention this week despite President Obama’s harsh rhetoric against K Street.

Tony and Heather Podesta caused a stir at the 2008 convention in Denver by handing out scarlet-colored L’s for lobbyists to wear in protest of then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s (D) hard line against their industry.

But the K Street power couple said they’ll be in Charlotte, N.C., this year, and won’t be bringing out any badges.

ADVERTISEMENT
“That would be blasé,” Heather Podesta said. “We are not known for repeating the same act.”

Obama has continued his talk tough against K Street in the White House and has barred his reelection campaign and the convention from accepting lobbyist cash. Democratic lobbyists say they’ve learned to live with the chiding that they take from the president.

“It was a form of civil disobedience last time around,” Heather Podesta said of the scarlet L’s. “It’s the rules of the road, and being the pacifists that we are, we have been beaten down to the point of submission.” 

Heather Podesta from Heather Podesta + Partners, along with her husband, Tony Podesta of the Podesta Group, are hosting several events in Charlotte throughout the week, including a brunch on Monday and Tuesday. The couple is also co-hosting a reception on Wednesday honoring Tony’s brother, John Podesta, and Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress.

Other lobbyists told The Hill they weren’t discouraged from coming to Charlotte by Obama’s tough talk, but that doesn’t mean the convention will be teeming with K Streeters.

Tony Podesta, the Podesta Group’s chairman, said the convention is no longer required attendance for Democrats.

“The temptation for lobbyists to sail against the wind is diminished. When you see senators not come at all, House members not come at all, it’s after Labor Day — there’s a whole host of things that have conspired to reduce attendance,” he said.

Lobbyist attendance in 2008 was boosted by the excitement over Obama’s candidacy. Now that he’s the incumbent instead of a fresh-faced challenger, the Charlotte convention isn’t seen as a “must-attend” event for lobbyists who work with the administration.

“Will excitement be tamped down compared to four years ago? Sure. But that was the case of ’96 from ’92,” said Rich Gold, head of public policy and regulation practice at Holland & Knight.

Gold’s firm hosted events at the Republican convention but has nothing planned for the Democratic gathering. Holland & Knight represents both the cities of Tampa and Charlotte, and lobbied for security funding for the convention cities.

“We are deploying more people to the Democratic convention because we have so many clients going. Trying to host an event or a party with a dozen different mayors running around wouldn’t be feasible,” said Gold, who’s going to both conventions. “If we didn’t have an office in Tampa, I’m not sure we would be co-sponsoring anything there.”

Prominent Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, president of Elmendorf | Ryan, said he’ll be at the convention, but for only two days.

“The reason for people I do business with to go is that there are elected officials at the conventions and other people to do business with. If elected officials and potential clients aren’t going, what’s the point?” Elmendorf said.

The conventions have also faced new competition for the money that trade groups and companies typically dole out in election years. Gold said the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on electioneering, has given groups an appealing alternative. 

“People who would be normally investing in the conventions now have this other outlet because of the Supreme Court decision and they can directly invest in the race,” Gold said. “The three-day, four-day party is much less relevant than the outside money.” 

One group that will not be active in Charlotte is the team of lobbyists that handled key convention jobs in the past. Those lobbyists were replaced in 2008, and many of them aren’t bothering to make the trip this year. 

Mike Berman, president of the Duberstein Group, traditionally helped organize the schedule of convention speakers. But this year, as in 2008, he plans to watch the convention from afar on television.

Bob Healy, senior vice president at Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, has helped run the convention podium since 1980. But he and his team, which includes some lobbyists, weren’t asked to volunteer in Denver and won’t be in Charlotte.

“In 2008 ... I’m not sure if our old team could have done a better job,” Healy said of the replacements. “And I’m sure they will do a pretty good job this year. There is a pattern here. It’s not like you are writing a new novel.”