Ex-Marine brings the spirit of the Corps to his lobbying shop

Although the stakes on the Hill aren’t nearly as grave, Fred Graefe got his education about success from combat.
Graefe was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps when he did a tour of duty as an infantryman in Vietnam.

“I’ve always prided myself on being prepared. I learned that in the Marine Corps,” he says.

He left the service in 1970, but he remains a proud Marine. A Marine Corps flag flies alongside the Stars and Stripes on the Capitol Hill townhouse that serves as the base of operations for his one-man lobbying firm. He shares the house with his 7-year-old Chocolate Labrador, Reilly.

Over a more than 20-year career as a lobbyist specializing in healthcare issues, Graefe has earned a reputation for being studiously prepared and exceptionally well connected.

A lobbyist must respect the expertise of lawmakers and their aides, Graefe says, especially since their level of expertise has increased with the complexity of the policy issues during his years in Washington.

“They’re very smart,” he says. “You can’t just go in there and wing it.”
Graefe is a prominent Democrat and a prolific fundraiser, mostly for other Democrats, but he boasts of friends from both parties.

“He’s just got a huge network of friends that he’s had for decades,” says Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.).

Graefe says he’s particularly drawn to fellow Midwesterners and fellow combat veterans. Many of his close friends claim that shared history, including Sen. Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelFormer US Defense secretary: 'American global leadership now is really nowhere' Meet Trump’s pick to take over for Mattis at Pentagon Juan Williams: Trump is AWOL on our troops MORE (R-Neb.) and former Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Chuck Robb (D-Va.).

Graefe’s friends say he brings the tenacity of a Marine to lobbying. “Fred was a Marine and so he has an indomitable spirit,” says Tauscher, who calls Graefe a close friend and a “very good Democrat.”

Longtime lobbyist Michael Bromberg, chairman of Capitol Health Group, puts it this way: “He’s a Marine through and through and when he gets an assignment, he tackles it like a Marine. He’s a bulldog.”

Graefe’s Iowa upbringing also helped prepare him for a career in politics, he says. His father, like him, was a Roman Catholic and a Democrat. His mother was a Presbyterian and a Republican. “So I’m used to diversity and spirited debate,” he jokes.

Graefe describes himself as a “classical New Dem: pro-business, strong on defense, fiscally conservative but with a social conscience for those less fortunate who need a helping hand. Marines never leave their dead or wounded on the battlefield.”

Graefe’s military experience permanently shaped his worldview. “When I look at people’s biographies [or curricula vitae] today, I still look to see what they were doing from 1966 to ’73. I still look to see whether they served or whether they chose to do something else,” he says.

Appropriately, Graefe’s links to politics began the day he became a Marine. In 1967, he graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and received his commission. It was signed by Secretary of the Navy John Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican who later would serve in the Senate.

“Several years later, it was a humbling experience then to go lobby him,” Graefe says. “Here was this giant, he’d been a Marine in World War II and Korea, secretary of the Navy, and here he is a United States senator.”

Graefe fondly recalls how every encounter with Chafee started the same way:

“Senator, how are you?”

“Lieutenant, how are you?”

During his early days in Washington, Graefe also brushed up against a giant in the lobbying field, Thomas “Tommy the Cork” Corcoran, a former Roosevelt aide who is regarded by many as the prototypical modern lobbyist.

Graefe clerked for two years under U.S. District Court Judge Howard Corcoran, Thomas’s younger brother, after graduating from the Georgetown University Law Center in 1973. Graefe also has a master’s degree in civil war history from Georgetown, which he earned in night school during his last year in the Corps.

His introduction to Capitol Hill came during his law school days. Graefe was a research assistant to law school dean Adrian “Butch” Fisher, a veteran lawyer and statesman. In that capacity, Graefe helped Fisher prepare testimony for congressional hearings on the peace talks aimed at ending the war in Vietnam.

“That was gratifying to me, that I could play such a small role in something like that. It’s part of history,” Graefe says.

“I’ve been lucky to have mentors, rabbis, like Butch Fisher and Judge Corcoran, to help point the way,” Graefe adds, explaining that he counts Bromberg as another one of his rabbis.

Graefe went straight into lobbying after his clerkship. Unlike most lobbyists, he never worked for Congress or in a federal agency. That may explain why he approaches lobbying like a litigator.

Says Graefe: “In the law, both sides appear at the same time before the judge and jury. After, the judge or jury decides. Here, you make the case to the members and staff with just you and your client.”

Since there is no opposing counsel, Graefe adds, it falls to him to tell the other side’s story.

“Even though the other side isn’t there in the room, you must faithfully and accurately portray what their position is,” he says.

“You have to establish trust. They have to know what I’m telling them is accurate and true, so they understand the upsides and if there are downsides,” Graefe explains. “You’re not going to ask them to do something that their constituents aren’t going to like.”

Although Graefe never worked as a litigator, he received an early education from his grandfather, an attorney. Growing up in Des Moines, Graefe would travel with his grandfather around Iowa to watch him work in the courtroom. “He was a very important influence on me,” Graefe says.

Graefe values what he learned in law school and is proud to be a lawyer. He’s noticed in recent years that fewer lobbyists are attorneys.

“When I started out, everybody was a lawyer and had to be a lawyer. Now that’s not the case,” he says.

Not that Graefe sees the lack of a law degree as a shortcoming for a lobbyist. More important is intelligence, preparation, trust — and brevity.

“Everybody who comes to Washington is very smart. People come to Washington because this is the game. This is it, and that’s why they like it here,” he says.

“The one thing that hasn’t changed the whole time is the ubiquitous one-pager,” he adds. “If you can’t distill what your issue is, what the facts are, and what you want in one typewritten page, you’re toast.”