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‘There’s no fess-up moment’

In an era of big lobby shops that do it all, Michael McKenna charted another course, leaving a top-10 revenue generator to start his own firm, a one-man operation with a decidedly personal touch.

He came up with its name, MWR Strategies, by taking the first letters of his three children’s names and tacking “strategies” on the end.

“I’m not a corporate guy,” said McKenna, a native New Yorker with a jaunty demeanor — more endearing than obnoxious, thanks to his heavy use of self-deprecating humor.
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He lives outside the box, too, or rather outside the Beltway. The 44-year-old energy lobbyist and his family have lived in Richmond ever since a job in the administration of then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican, brought them there in 1994.

“When it came time to put the Allen administration in the rearview mirror, the wife said, ‘Work where you want, but the kids and I are staying here.’ It was probably a good decision,” McKenna said, although the commute can be a killer some days.
He stays in an apartment in Washington for much of the week.     

If McKenna’s shop is boutique, his clients are anything but. He lobbies for seven, including such utility giants as Southern Company and AEP, and natural-gas companies like Suez and NiSource.

The client base puts him knee-deep, even as a Republican, in one of the biggest debates this Congress: climate change.
And while MWR Strategies is small, it provides more than straight lobbying services. McKenna is also a pollster. He does some campaign work but more typically researches attitudes about policy topics or performs more basic market research for clients.

He doesn’t poll for his lobbying clients, believing there is a potential conflict of interest that could impair the polling data. But he believes the polling helps in his advocacy work.

“It reminds me that there is a bigger world out there,” he said.

Like a lot of folks, the original course McKenna charted for himself was different from what became the reality, though it wasn’t that far off.

“I was originally going to go to law school and then run for elected office. So, of course, I ended up neither going to law school [nor] running for elected office.”

McKenna’s father was a surety lawyer in New York. In 1975 he moved his family to D.C. to take a job as a general counsel at the Heritage Foundation. McKenna inherited an interest in politics and love of conservative principles, although he worked for Democrats as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied history. He later supplemented that degree with a master’s in public policy.

After graduating from Penn, he took an extended cross-country tour. He came back to marry his college girlfriend. He then went to work as an aide to Helen Bentley, a Republican congresswoman from Maryland. That was followed by a stint in the Reagan administration working at what was then the Urban Mass Transportation Administration, which is now the Federal Transit Administration, and a year at the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal help to low-income area residents.

He worked in the Energy Department during the George H.W. Bush administration, and then was the second-in-charge at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality before becoming a lobbyist.

After starting out on his own in what he called a “low-rent” practice, he moved to Dutko, which soon became Dutko Worldwide after an infusion of cash and an ambitious growth plan.

“They are really good at what they do, and they are really smart,” he said of his old firm. But even what he called a limited corporate structure began “chafing” him.

Like others with a D.C. memory that extends to the era of Reagan and O’Neill, McKenna longs for bygone days when members were said to socialize more and people just seemed nicer to one another.

“My mom always taught me manners are great. They don’t cost nothing and they really help you,” he said.

He says Republicans were more willing to work with Democrats back then, and vice versa.

“There is a difference between the ideal and the good, the perfect and the good,” he said. “If you can’t figure that out by the time you are 30 you are probably going to have a lot of trouble in life.”

One consequence of the declining camaraderie is often a failure to communicate, McKenna believes.

Conversations surrounding energy issues, his bailiwick, are often “fact-deficient,” he said. The Senate-passed mandate for renewable fuels production is a good example of how policy is outpacing the facts on the ground, McKenna said.

The bill requires production of 26 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022. Much of that would come from cellulosic ethanol, which still needs a technological breakthrough to be viable.  

“It’s a bit mystifying,” McKenna says. “I’ve suggested to people, Why not make it 50 billion? Or 500 billion? If we are going to deal in mythical numbers, let’s at least make it big. Dreaming’s free.”

Climate-change legislation, on the other hand, could turn into a nightmare for some of his clients. AEP and Southern rely heavily on coal to generate their electricity, which releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon curbs could add significantly to each company’s costs of doing business.

McKenna believes Congress should wait until an international agreement that includes countries like India and China is reached before imposing a carbon diet on American companies.

Wouldn’t an environmental advocate just say he’s trying to delay meaningful greenhouse gas curbs in the United States?

“Yeah, that’s true,” McKenna acknowledged. “And that’s the other thing we don’t do anymore, because we don’t talk to each other. There’s no fess-up moment, where you are just, like, ‘Yeah, absolutely. Your point has some validity. I’m not sure I agree with all of it. But, yeah, I agree with some of it.’”

McKenna earned $760,000 in lobbying fees last year, according to Senate records. He expected to take a “haircut” this year.
Instead, business is been better than ever — a surprise, given the election results last November and his own firm’s limitations, which, considering the size of the shop, are admittedly his own.

“I’m pretty good at lobbying. I think I’m passable at polling. This marketing stuff, I’m hopeless at,” he said.