Reluctant lobbyists descend on Cleveland

Reluctant lobbyists descend on Cleveland
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Lobbyists will be out in full force for the Republican National Convention in Cleveland despite the trepidation that many feel about Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE

But excitement is sorely lacking among the K Street set for the quadrennial spectacle, which traditionally has been one of the lobbying industry’s biggest networking and social events.

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“I’ve had so many people say to me that if they hadn’t paid for their room two months ago, they wouldn’t be going,” one trade association lobbyist told The Hill. 

 

Duty calls

The Hill spoke with more than 35 lobbyists, firms, trade groups and companies for this story. While most said they would have a presence at the event, few are treating it as anything more than a work obligation.

Dinners and events that had been a staple of previous GOP conventions aren’t being held in Cleveland because the hosts decided to abstain, putting a damper on the festivities. 

“There are folks sitting this one out, as it has been extensively documented, but there are plenty of people who are going. That was our mentality from the start: There’s going to be a convention, just roll with it,” said Dave Schnittger, a senior policy adviser at Squire Patton Boggs, a K Street firm with deep roots in Cleveland. 

“Why is that our outlook? We’re in the policy business, and the conventions are part of the process that defines who sets the policy agenda in Washington, so naturally we’re going to be there.”

Squire Patton Boggs will be hosting two events, co-sponsoring others and providing space for other parties at its offices in Cleveland’s historic Key Tower.

 

Cleveland cash

Despite a somewhat lightened social calendar, Cleveland will still be a hive of activity, with dozens of unaffiliated events, parties, fundraisers and concerts being held away from the convention floor.  

And while some Republican lawmakers are staying away from the convention to keep their distance from Trump, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, others are using the opportunity to fundraise, according to invitations obtained by The Hill. 

“If you are looking for a great way to fill your Monday schedule, Congressman [Darrell] Issa would love to have you join him at Firestone Country Club,” reads a golf fundraiser invite from the California Republican with a suggested donation of $1,000. 

Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Female lawmakers make bipartisan push for more women in politics at All In Together gala Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey endorses Biden MORE (R-Neb.) is having an afternoon tea fundraiser at The Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland, on Wednesday, according to another emailed invitation. Other high-profile lawmakers, including members of GOP leadership, are likely to be busy with fundraisers as well.

 

Playing a part

As in previous years, lobbyists will be playing a significant role in ensuring the convention goes on as planned. 

While Trump railed against big money and special interests throughout the primary race, he has brought on several top campaign aides with K Street resumes. The most prominent is campaign manager Paul Manafort, a Washington insider with decades of lobbying experience.

“Half the people running the thing are lobbyists, so I don’t know that they have to stay low,” said one in-house lobbyist who will be in Cleveland.

Some lobbyists say Trump’s presence on the GOP ticket could be an unexpected boon for conventiongoers.

In the past, “every event and every speaker was carefully choreographed. ... For now, it seems like a lot of things will be more free-wheeling, and that will make it interesting from a historical point of view,” said Loren Monroe, a principal at BGR Group. “But [it] also emphasizes the need for us to be present, for us to be able to help the people we work for navigate the process.”

 

Return of the ‘Scarlet L’

The lobby firm Heather Podesta + Partners, known for its Democratic founder, is having its first brunch at a Republican convention. 

The brunch, held at Mabel’s BBQ, is happening with the tagline, “Let them Eat Meat.” 

Robert Hoffman, a GOP lobbyist at the firm, said it’s important to “provide people with a venue to come together.”

“There’s no agenda at our events other than to come together, meet, talk to people and walk away feeling like, ‘I learned about a bunch of people I didn’t know before who are interesting,’ ” he said.

Elected officials, staff, media and lobbyists are all expected to attend, Hoffman said, and the firm will take its trademark tongue-in-cheek approach to K Street, bringing back the “Scarlet Ls” passed around during the 2008 conventions.

The “L” is meant to parody the perceived stigma against lobbying. The firm said one of its New Year’s resolutions was to “Make Lobbying Great Again.” 

 

Sitting it out

Some K Streeters have decided to skip the convention altogether. 

One longtime Washington Republican told The Hill it was the first presidential cycle since Ronald Reagan that he was not participating in the nominating event.

The lobbyist, who asked not to be named, compared the political convention to a family reunion — and Trump to the uncle everybody hates. 

When asked if he would be going to Cleveland, Tony Fratto, founder of Hamilton Place Strategies and a former George W. Bush administration official, responded with a resounding no.  

“I feel bad for anyone who has to attend — I think the experience will be emotionally and intellectually unhealthy,” he wrote in an email.  

Although Trump’s rhetoric has driven some corporations, lobbyists and elected officials away from the convention, the event was falling out of favor even before the billionaire came onto the political scene. 

Some lobbyists question the value of spending money on the event and argue Trump has provided a convenient excuse for not going.

“They don’t serve any real functional purpose any more, in terms of being the place where the party goes though the real competitive process of picking a nominee. The conventions are a process in form rather than substance, going through a ritual that produces a predetermined outcome,” said the longtime Republican lobbyist. 

“The only thing that might make this thing interesting is the unpredictability of Donald Trump. This is his reality show dream, for God’s sake,” he added. “God knows what we’ll see.” 

Others are taking convention week in stride, even if they intend to take it with a dose of liquid courage.

“On the Republican side, nothing on the 2016 campaign has been consistent with what we expected, so there’s no reason to expect a conventional convention this year,” said Bruce Mehlman of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, whose firm is throwing a happy hour bash on the opening night of the convention.

“Given chaos of the year, we concluded that the best thing we could do was provide alcohol to people early in the week,” he said.