Obama’s K Street project

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is benefiting from the support of well-connected Washington lobbyists even though he has prohibited his campaign from accepting contributions from them and political action committees (PACs).

While Obama has decried the influence of special interests in Washington, the reality is that many of the most talented and experienced political operatives in his party are lobbyists, and he needs their help.

Mike Williams, the director of government relations at Credit Suisse Securities, said of the network of lobbyists supporting Obama: “I would imagine that it’s as large as the Clinton list,” in reference to rival presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who is an entrenched favorite of the Washington Democratic establishment.

He said that while lobbyists cannot give money to Obama, they can give “policy” and “campaign support.” Indeed, K Street denizens have rare policy and national campaign expertise.

Williams is actively building support for Obama among lobbyists and the corporate clients they represent. While other Obama supporters have described him as a leading activist, Williams demurs: “I wouldn’t want to put my position as a spearhead.” He acknowledges that the gains Obama is making among Washington’s Democratic establishment are hard to see because Obama’s K Street supporters have kept a low profile. As a result, Obama’s K Street network is a stealthy operation.

Williams said Clinton’s network appears larger because “it’s easy to find the Clinton people because they’re going to be on the FEC reports anyway,” discussing fundraising reports posted by the Federal Election Commission.

Clinton expects lobbyists supporting her to give to her campaign, leaving them little choice but to declare their allegiance publicly. Because Obama has refused their money, lobbyists backing him can keep their support private, and avoid angering Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who are powerful Senate committee chairmen running for the Democratic nomination.

Obama’s spokesman Bill Burton said the senator knows that it is impossible to completely escape the influence of Washington’s establishment, but that rejecting lobbyists’ money is an important gesture.

“Senator Obama said when he set out this policy that it doesn’t solve the problem of money in politics but it is a sign and symbolic step in the right direction,” said Burton. “It’s not going to stop the sway that money has over policies or that special interests have over legislation, but it indicates the type of administration Obama would have if elected.”

Other K Street players working to build momentum for Obama are former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a consultant for Alston & Bird; Broderick Johnson, president of Bryan Cave Strategies LLC; Mark Keam, the lead Democratic lobbyist at Verizon; Jimmy Williams, vice president of government affairs for the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America; Thomas Walls, vice president of federal public affairs at McGuireWoods Consulting; and Francis Grab, senior manager at Washington Council Ernst & Young.

Lobbyists tend to be cautious creatures. Evidence that they are flocking to Obama’s camp shows that his campaign has gained substantial momentum among the politically sophisticated.

Some of Obama’s K Street boosters keep their support a secret to uphold Obama’s image as a Washington outsider untainted by D.C.’s influence business.

When Obama declared his presidential candidacy in February, he said he would re-engage Americans disenchanted with business-as-usual in Washington who had turned away from politics.

 “And as people have looked away in disillusionment and frustration, we know what’s filled the void,” said Obama. “The cynics, and the lobbyists, and the special interests who’ve turned our government into a game only they can afford to play. They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter; they think they own this government, but we’re here today to take it back. The time for that politics is over. It’s time to turn the page.”

In a fundraising e-mail distributed yesterday, Obama emphasized his stance against taking money from lobbyists and PACs.
Two lobbyists who are supporting another candidate and spoke to The Hill on condition of anonymity said that Obama’s campaign contacted them asking to be put in touch with their networks of business clients and acquaintances.

One of the lobbyists, who supports Clinton, said that Shomik Dutta, a fundraiser for Obama’s campaign, called to ask if the lobbyist’s wife would be interested in making a political contribution.

“I was quite taken aback,” he said. “He was very direct in saying that you’re a lobbyist and we don’t want contributions from lobbyists. But your wife can contribute and we like your network.”

Dutta declined to discuss his work.

Williams, of Credit Suisse, said that asking for access to lobbyists’ networks is not the same as asking lobbyists to raise money for Obama.

“When they say, ‘Give us access to your network,’ it’s not so we can raise money from them; it’s so we can have conversations with them and see whether [members of the networks] are interested in what we’re saying,” he said. “They may decide they are not interested.”

Some lobbyists who favor Obama want to stay below the radar to avoid retaliation from rivals such as Clinton, Biden, and Dodd.

One lobbyist who has worked hard for Obama behind the scenes, according to two pro-Obama lobbyists, denied that he was in the Illinois senator’s camp when queried by The Hill. The shy lobbyist wanted to keep his allegiance secret because he represents a New York-based company and his job could be harmed if he alienated Clinton, explained a fellow Obama partisan.

Other pro-Obama lobbyists are open about their plans to help him become president.

“He’s like Bill Clinton with no baggage,” said Jimmy Williams, of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers. “He’s got that aura and people are talking about him. You realize you’re in the presence of something incredible. He has broad appeal.”

“He won’t take our money but we can go out and campaign for him,” he said. “I’m more than happy to campaign for the guy because the country is in dire need of honest leadership.”

Williams, a former aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), said he was in contact with Durbin’s office to plot out ways to get more young voters interested in Obama.

He also said he would try to raise money for Obama’s campaign in his home county of Rappahannock, in Virginia
“We’ll have a fundraiser in Little Washington or Sperryville or something. I haven’t locked it down yet,” he said.