Hill vet ventures to private sector

Bob Van Heuvelen may be a relative newcomer to K Street, but he’s a bona fide Washington player.

Van Heuvelen started his own lobbying practice last July — Van Heuvelen Strategies — after 10 years as the chief of staff to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a childhood friend, and a lifetime in public experience that will surely serve him well running his own business.

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He served six years as head of civil enforcement for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 12 years as a senior prosecutor enforcing environmental laws for the Justice Department, and did post-college stints on Capitol Hill — first working for then-Sen. Quentin Burdick (D-N.D.) and later for a subcommittee on the environment chaired by then-Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine).

During those three decades, Van Heuvelen has been presented with countless challenges. But no day was quite as grim as one at the EPA in the mid-1990s.

Van Heuvelen explains:

“My counterpart [Earl Devaney], who was the director of criminal enforcement, came in one day, relatively seriously, and put a letter on my desk, and it was a death threat directed to me and to him,” he said.

“Of course, I was a little unnerved and wondered whether I should even get in my car and turn on the car or whether I had to go rent a hotel room and take my family to safe quarters.”

The danger turned out to be less than it seemed. After a nerve-racking week, Van Heuvelen learned the real story.

“The author of the letter was a person who was serving a life sentence in the Texas state prison. He figured out … [that] making a death threat against a federal official is a federal offense. He figured this was his ticket into better quarters.” It didn’t work, Van Heuvelen said with a chuckle.

That the scary tale has a happy ending is consistent with Van Heuvelen’s demeanor, which is reflected in his business plan. His mantra, he says, is “interesting problems and fun clients.”

When he set up shop last year, Van Heuvelen says he decided, “I was going to try to put my skills to work to try to help people who had interesting problems and people who were fun to work with.”

Unless potential clients meet both of those criteria, Van Heuvelen won’t take them on, he said.

So far, good clients have come to him; Van Heuvelen hasn’t had to solicit business, he said.

Even though he cannot lobby Conrad or the Budget Committee chairman’s aides until July, Van Heuvelen has already compiled a lucrative stable of clients.

“So far, I have to say I’ve been delighted by my ability to work on a couple of pretty interesting projects with a handful of clients who have been not only stimulating as far as the problems they presented but also by the personalities I’ve encountered,” he said.

Van Heuvelen has inked deals with a variety of business interests but has been working especially hard on housing issues as a representative of several major homebuilders, such as KB Home and Toll Brothers .

Van Heuvelen also recently lured away Anissa Rogness from Conrad’s staff to work with him in the office space he rents from the C2 Group near the Capitol.

Despite this rapid success, Van Heuvelen speaks of his time on the Hill with a sense of nostalgia. “Sen. Conrad and I had a fast friendship. We were like brothers and we just get an enormous bang out of working together,” he said.

Even so, Van Heuvelen felt that it was time to move on. After seeing Conrad through his reelection campaign in 2006, Van Heuvelen concluded that he and the senator would be better served if they parted ways. “In my own gut, I figured Sen. Conrad really deserved to have a fresh look at his team,” he said. Conrad “didn’t buy it,” Van Heuvelen admitted.

Meanwhile, Van Heuvelen wanted to see how policy looks to the private sector. “It was good for me to find another outlet,” he said.

Van Heuvelen said his decision wasn’t influenced by the impending imposition of stronger restrictions against former members and aides lobbying Congress, which took effect in January. “Had I left after the new law had taken effect, I don’t think it would have changed a whole of lot of things for me.”

Even operating under the old rules has been difficult on a personal level, Van Heuvelen acknowledged. “I’ve known Kent since I was a kid,” he said.

“The awkwardness that’s imposed by the law really is an impediment to a sort of normalcy,” Van Heuvelen said. At least he and his wife can attend Conrad’s belated birthday party this month — as long as he doesn’t bring a client, he joked.

Van Heuvelen understands the reasons why he has to hold off lobbying his former boss and his staff, he said, “but they’re my colleagues and they’re my friends and I really miss the collegiality.”

Van Heuvelen and Conrad grew up near each other. Their political career paths first dovetailed in 1974, when Conrad managed current Sen. Byron Dorgan’s (D-N.D.) failed first campaign for the House. That same year, Van Heuvelen worked on an unsuccessful recount effort on behalf of former North Dakota Gov. William Guy’s (D) bid to unseat Sen. Milton Young (R).

Their careers aligned again in 1996. At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Conrad approached Van Heuvelen about a staff position. Van Heuvelen and his wife, Jane Sherburne, then an attorney in the Clinton White House working on the Whitewater case, bumped into Conrad in the convention hall. Not long after, Van Heuvelen left the EPA and returned to the Hill. He became chief of staff within a year and stayed for nine more.

Conrad had warm words for his former aide. “I have known Bob for close to 40 years. He is a dear friend and trusted colleague who is deeply committed to both the people of North Dakota and our nation. Throughout his remarkable career, Bob’s integrity, dedication and hard work have earned him the respect and admiration of his peers. He did a tremendous job as my chief of staff,” he said through a spokesman.