Democratic debates are magnet for lobbyists


The Democratic presidential debates have been a unique draw for many lobbyists, giving them an opportunity to network, gather information for clients and get their boots on the ground in the middle of a fierce primary fight.

Moses Mercado, a principal at Ogilvy, supports former Vice President Joe Biden and attended the debate in Houston in September.

“It’s almost like the World Series. Every four years — like the World Cup — we have a huge deal for political people like myself,” he told The Hill.

Many of those flocking to the debates are lobbyists with campaign experience, allowing them the chance to relive their glory days on the trail and catch up with old friends. But it’s also an important opportunity to make connections and learn from the insiders working with each campaign.

“It also lets you know who’s in who’s camp,” Mercado said. “You get to see where everybody’s at.”

CR Wooters, a former lobbyist at Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen & Thomas who is now a partner at public affairs firm FIO360, was in Los Angeles for the December debate where he found a unique location to network.

“When I was in L.A. at the debate there were food trucks just outside the debate hall. I walked over to get something to eat and ran into senior level friends who work on three separate campaigns also grabbing a coffee or some food,” he told The Hill. “Obviously that was totally unplanned but super interesting and gave me a real sense of how they were thinking about the race.

“Those happenstance conversations can’t happen in D.C.,” Wooters added, explaining why the Democratic debates were such a draw for lobbyists. 

One Democratic lobbyist explained the unique opportunity the debates provide.

“Is there a bit of competition to look through the crowd and say, ‘oh who do I know?’ Is there a bit of value of being seen on TV? Yeah, there is,” the lobbyist said.

Clients want information about the primary including the inside scoop on who is gaining or losing steam, one Democratic consultant noted.

“Clients care about how political the atmosphere is going to affect their business or their issue sets,” the consultant said.

But attending the debates can also be a complicated decision for lobbyists as the industry faces a broad attack from Democrats and progressive groups. And with the lobbyists and donations from special interest groups under scrutiny, campaigns also are careful to not appear too cozy with lobbyists.

Former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, for example, was criticized in February 2016 for having Steve Elmendorf of Subject Matter, who lobbies for Goldman Sachs, at a debate. 

“You don’t really get to see the candidates,” Mercado said, but added that he attended an after party with Biden and saw Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) at the pool at his hotel the next morning.

“You go to the after hour thing and it’s more interacting with people you already knew. It was a great opportunity to see state reps and state senators,” he said.

And unlike the party conventions, which are also magnets for the lobbying world, lobbyists don’t typically bring their clients to debates, especially during the primary. 

“I don’t think anyone is actually trying to influence policy but they are trying to gather intel that could be useful down the road,” Wooters said.

“I would never in a million years suggest to a client ‘let’s go to this,'” the Democratic lobbyist said. “Unless they’re like political nerds and they’re going to tell all their friends that they’re sitting in the debate and they’re paying attention to this.”

But making those decisions can be complicated. There are situations in which it is useful for lobbyists to take clients to a debate, the Democratic consultant said.

“It’s useful to go if there’s a big company in the host city that’s a client. For instance, when it was in Detroit and if have Ford as a client and don’t go to debate, that’s malpractice,” the source said.

Lobbyists who are strictly policy-focused might not find it useful to attend debates because the information collected is usually more of a political nature.

The anonymous Democratic lobbyist stressed that at debates, it’s every man or woman for themselves and there are lines and no particular “VIP” sections at the after parties.

“When you’re wearing $5,000 shoes, you don’t want to wait in lines. There’s tons of security, they’re big events and they require patience,” the lobbyist said.

But those are reasons, though, why many said debates are a good way to escape the D.C. bubble.

“I have found the debates to be a very useful check on Washington conventional wisdom.  I don’t have time to camp out in Iowa or New Hampshire for a couple weeks but I can do 24-48 hours in Detroit or L.A. and talk to campaign folks and get a sense on how folks are feeling,” Wooters said. “My clients love this on the ground intel.”

But it’s not all work. The debates also provide a personal draw for those lobbyists who have campaign experience or long Democratic ties.

Wooters, for example, was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee director of incumbent retention in 2008. 

“I think at debates there are what I would categorize as Democratic lobbyists and operatives that at some point in their career worked at the DNC, DSCC, ran a campaign or are just political in nature,” Ivan Zapien, leader of Hogan Lovells’s Government Relations and Public Affairs practice, said. 

“Those are the folks naturally drawn to these things and happen to be lobbyists. But there are not an overwhelming amount of shoe leather lobbyists,” he added. 

Zapien worked at the DNC under then-Chairman Terry McAuliffe. 

Mercado of Ogilvy was the DNC’s deputy executive director of intergovernmental affairs from 2005 to 2007. He worked as state director for John Kerry’s 2004 presidential race.

“It was less about influence for me and more about reconnecting with something that I love,” said Mercado.

“It’s kind of like going back to the first day of school. You see all the same operatives that you worked with that are still around. It’s hard to get rid of the bug once you get bitten by the presidential bug — it’s really hard to let go,” he said.

Tags Amy Klobuchar Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Kerry

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