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Veteran lobbyists flex muscles in K Street's new normal

Veteran lobbyists flex muscles in K Street's new normal
© Greg Nash

K Street is under intense pressure from clients to secure COVID-19 government assistance in an environment where lobbyists are struggling to make new contacts as they work from home. 

Lobbyists are trying to deliver while also learning to navigate the new digitally focused landscape, a drastic change from their routine of attending fundraisers and meeting with lawmakers and their staffs in person on Capitol Hill.

The difficulty in establishing new connections means many are relying on existing ties, making it harder for newcomers and those who desperately need to expand their networks. 

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“Having the physical aspects of this job temporarily removed has highlighted even further the importance of relationships,” said Ivan Zapien, a partner at Hogan Lovells. “The Zoom lobbying period had made it particularly difficult for starting a relationship with a member or staff, and building the level of trust necessary to do our job.”

That’s also put veteran lobbyists at an advantage.  

“Those of us with years of working with people in various capacities have built the good will and trust for members and staff to call us back and hear us out — things will be toughest for those just starting to build up their networks,” said Zapien, who has been a lobbyist for more than a dozen years.

During the pandemic, lobbyists have been competing for the attention of a handful of officials at the state and federal level who are making key decisions on government policies and spending. And with the nation in crisis mode for the past two-and-half months, many of those officials aren’t available to take meetings with lobbyists looking to introduce themselves, something they might have done pre-coronavirus.

“Since the pandemic hit, a relatively small number of state and federal policy makers have been making critical decisions at a pace and scope never seen in my lifetime. The top decision makers simply don’t have time for virtual courtesy meetings. Only advocates who have earned the trust of the most senior decision-makers can get through and make an impact,” said Loren Monroe, a principal at BGR Group and a lobbyist for more than two decades.

The new reality is forcing many on K Street to adapt in order to remain influential.

The Advocacy Association’s Mike Fulton and Joshua Habursky, who both co-authored an e-book on best practices for virtual advocacy during the pandemic, said even established lobbyists need to be creative.

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“The key is being willing to try new things, be consistent and over communicative,” Habursky said. “This is certainly propelling a lot of folks that have been traditional halls-and-walls lobbyists to think outside the box. The folks that have been doing holistic advocacy … are best equipped to manage this shift.”

Fulton added that lobbyists have to roll with the punches.

“Just because we can’t walk around the halls of Congress doesn’t mean we can’t engage,” he said.

Lobbyists said there are pluses and minuses to conducting business exclusively online or by phone.

Ferox Strategies CEO Cristina Antelo said she finds “it is even easier to be in more places all at once virtually.”

“I am on Zoom calls and at virtual roundtables for several hours each day just to keep up the access to members and staff right now. It feels efficient and we are definitely getting our client’s point of view across even from a distance,” she said.

For Alex Vogel, founder of The Vogel Group, having 15 calls or Zoom meetings a day replaces the 10 Capitol Hill meetings a day he was used to.

“I think some of the video conference and remote access things are here to stay long term and will simply be added into the practical reality even when we can meet clients and policymakers face to face again,” he said. 

But the work day, he said, has certainly gotten longer.

“8 p.m. work call on a Friday night? Pre-COVID that was exceedingly rare. Now, it's called a regular Friday night,” Vogel said.

Vin Weber, a partner at the public affairs firm Mercury, said it’s also a new landscape for clients who previously haven’t felt the need to turn to K Street.

“Everyone is trying to figure out what the new Washington is all about and clients are hiring guides who know their way around,” Weber said. “Lobbyists who have high-level relationships and substantive expertise are serving their clients well and will continue to do so.”

For some lobbying firms, that means record levels of income.

“June will be our best month in terms of revenue that we have ever had. We have added a handful of clients since the shutdown and expect the firm to only grow in the months ahead,” Oscar Ramirez said about his lobbying shop, Fulcrum Public Affairs.

Even companies that are cutting workers are looking to maintain their connections to Congress, one Democratic lobbyist said.

“Some companies are letting nonessential firms go, some are slashing everybody. Where companies are putting priority right now is on who has the pen in writing these stimulus packages. For the relief bills, people know [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi will be taking the lead so they need lobbyists with House Democrat connections,” the lobbyist said.

Legislative action in Congress has been scaled back significantly, raising expectations for lobbyists who may be looking at one final chance for serious COVID-19 relief funding this summer.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Following debate, Biden hammers Trump on coronavirus | Study: Universal mask-wearing could save 130,000 lives | Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight On The Money: Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight | Landlords, housing industry sue CDC to overturn eviction ban Finger-pointing picks up in COVID-19 relief fight MORE (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that it's likely a fifth coronavirus relief bill would be coming “in the next month or so” after the House passed a bill to provide $3 trillion in additional relief. After that, though, the focus is likely to shift more toward campaigning, even if much of it can’t be done in the traditional way.  

It’s too early to tell if traditional lobbying will be permanently altered by the pandemic, but Washington fundraising is one activity lawmakers haven’t put on hold, said Brian Pomper, a partner at Akin Gump.

“Members are being pretty creative with the kinds of fundraisers they can do. But politicians, staffers and lobbyists thrive on interpersonal interaction, and when we are able to see each other in-person again I expect it to return,” he said.

The art of negotiation, however, is likely to revert back to normal as soon as it can, according to Stewart Verdery, CEO of Monument Advocacy.

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“COVID is going to forever change how arguments are presented [and] getting information to staff is going to change a lot,” he said. “However, the negotiation part will revert to in-person because the process is just too confidential to do virtually when in-person meetings are allowed.”

Overall, lobbyists are eager to return to life pre-coronavirus as much as possible.

Zapien argued that lobbyists simply aren’t wired for desk jobs. 

“Without the storytelling, policy briefings, dinners, meeting, receptions and deep relationship building, this kind of becomes a desk job for lobbyists, members and staff,” he said. “And while it’s efficient and the job will still get done, it’s not how we are built.”