By Alexander Bolton - 10/10/12 09:00 AM EDT
Democratic lobbyists shunned by President Obama’s campaign are turning their attention to Senate and House races in a bid for relevance as the fall’s action shifts to battleground states.
Lobbyists and other senior K Street denizens who want to help the Obama campaign are being offered routine jobs working phone banks and canvassing precincts, unusual fare for seasoned political hands used to making big strategic decisions.
“A number of the folks at our firm are taking a leave from the firm to work on different Senate races. Somebody is going to be in Wisconsin and somebody is going to be in North Dakota, somebody in Indiana and somebody in Connecticut,” said Heather Podesta, who heads her own government-relations firm.
Podesta said it’s clear the Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee do not want to be associated with lobbyists on the stump, even though that means giving up their years of accumulated political expertise.
“I respect the Obama and DNC rules, and they made it very clear that there isn’t a role or desired role for lobbyists and there are plenty of other candidates who are interested in our help,” Podesta said. “I want to help people who want me to help them.”
The Obama campaign’s cold shoulder toward K Street is an extension of the administration’s restrictive treatment of lobbyists.
Soon after taking office, Obama signed an executive order that bars executive-branch personnel from accepting gifts from registered lobbyists and prohibits lobbyists entering government from working on issues relevant to former clients for a period of two years.
But despite Obama’s rhetoric against K Street, a number of lobbyists have found their way into his administration. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, for example, was registered to lobby as recently as 2008.
The Obama campaign does not accept donations from registered lobbyists or allow them to bundle contributions, though it brought on an ex-lobbyist as an adviser late last year.
Broderick Johnson joined the Obama campaign as a senior adviser after lobbying for AT&T and BellSouth and serving as the chairman of Bryan Cave Strategies. He deregistered as a lobbyist months before joining Obama’s campaign.
Virginia delegate and Obama campaign coordinator Mark Keam said he occasionally runs into friends from his days as a Capitol Hill aide and Verizon lobbyist who ask how they can help the president.
“My standard answer is show up at one of the offices. We have offices in Arlington, Fairfax, Falls Church. The most important thing that anyone can do, the only thing you can really do, is knock on doors and make phone calls,” he said. “These are people who are on the Hill or in downtown DC. Their advice isn’t going to be helpful because the campaign is run by professionals in Chicago.”
Keam said he deregistered as a lobbyist for Verizon in the summer of 2008.
But other lobbyists and former lobbyists have found it difficult to help Obama’s reelection effort, even though the campaign does not have an explicit rule preventing lobbyists from donating their time.
One Democratic lobbyist said he can help Obama’s campaign “behind the scenes” but cannot attend events with the president, even if he helped organize them.
“If I help with politics for an event in a certain place, I can’t be there if the president is going to be there,” said the source.
Democratic lobbyists said they were more willing to go out of their way to help Obama four years ago because there was more excitement about his candidacy.
“In other presidential cycles you saw more K Streeters out and about. You don’t see them as much as you used to. They’re turned off by the rules,” said the lobbyist.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee do not impose the same restrictions as Obama’s campaign, making it much easier for lobbyists to take a few weeks off to volunteer for a campaign.
One Democratic lobbyist said he was planning to head to Ohio two weeks before Election Day to “knock on doors for Sherrod Brown.”
Another said he would help Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), while a third was looking at ways to help Rep. Martin Heinrich (D), who is running for Senate in New Mexico.
Mitt Romney has taken a friendlier approach to K Street. His campaign has tapped current and former lobbyists to serve in senior strategy and fundraising positions.
Ed Gillespie, the founder of Quinn Gillespie & Associates, one of D.C.’s premier lobbying firms, joined Romney’s campaign as a senior adviser in April. He is no longer a lobbyist for the firm.
Drew Maloney, a former lobbyist for Ogilvy Government Relations, joined Romney’s campaign after the convention to prepare for the candidate’s possible transition to the White House. He deregistered as a lobbyist in June.
Ronald Kaufman is a senior adviser to the Romney campaign who formerly served as senior managing partner at Dutko Group. He’s been working on the campaign for over a year and decertified as a lobbyist almost two years ago.
Vin Weber, a former Republican lawmaker from Minnesota, is a registered lobbyist who has helped Romney as a senior adviser since the beginning of his campaign. His name appeared on lobbying registrations as recently as July.
Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), the co-chairman of Mercury, a D.C. lobbying and public affairs shop, is a senior adviser who accompanied Romney on his trip to London this summer.
Unlike Obama, Romney accepts contributions from lobbyists and allows them to bundle donations for him.
Three major K Street players, Jack Gerard of the American Petroleum Institute, Wayne Berman, formerly of Ogilvy Government Relations, and Mark Isakowitz, a partner at Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, are major fundraisers for the Romney campaign.