Bipartisan insiders

Bipartisan insiders

It was the “lunch that never happened.” That’s how the duo that now heads up lobby firm Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas refers to a seminal 2004 meeting.

It was then that Democratic operative David Castagnetti, working on the presidential campaign of then-Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryIn New Mexico, a phony amigo Warren shows signs of broadening her base Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE (Mass.), met at Capitol Hill hot spot Charlie Palmer Steak with George W. Bush administration aide Bruce Mehlman.

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In the heat of the Bush reelection campaign — four months before Election Day — Mehlman asked his rival to lunch.

“I believe it started with, ‘This lunch isn’t occurring and never occurred. But after the campaign, when your guy has lost, it would be fun to work together. What are you thinking about?’ ” Mehlman recalled, sitting in the same restaurant more than a decade later.

“And the response was something along the lines of, ‘Well, after my guy has won, I am thinking about returning to the industry, and it would be fun to have you work for me,’ ” he added.

Eventually, after the dust from the campaign settled, a new lobby firm was born. Mehlman partnered with fellow Republican Alex Vogel, and Castagnetti made his membership public soon after.

It took six years for the upstart firm, then known as Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, to grow into one of the top earners on K Street, but it’s now consistently among those bringing in the most revenue. 

The firm has a dozen lobbyists who work on blue-chip clients including Proctor & Gamble, Wal-Mart, Yahoo, United Technologies, the Business Roundtable, Edison Electric Institute, the National Restaurant Association, United Technologies, and the Technology CEO Council, where Mehlman serves as executive director.

Hewlett-Packard became one of the firm’s first clients in January 2005, and Maria Cino, HP’s vice president for Americas and U.S. government relations, called the lobby shop the company’s “anchor firm.” 

“They’re a one-stop shop for us. They’re bipartisan, so they have strength on the Democratic and Republican side,” she said. Currently, eight outside firms represent the company.

“While we meet with all our consultants twice a month, there’s probably very few days that go by that one of HP’s lobbyists aren’t reaching out to Mehlman Castagnetti for a specific task,” Cino said. “They’re the go-to firm because of the depth of their experience, expertise and relationships.”

The “lunch that never happened” was so named because it wasn’t supposed to happen. Still, the two had worked together on previous private sector projects and realized that they fit together quite well.

“Bruce looks at things from a substantive perspective,” Castagnetti says, “I kind of bring a political perspective, and that’s what we’ve kind of tried to integrate within the organization. Everyone has different talents.”

Last year, Vogel departed the firm to start his own non-lobbying venture, VogelHood Research. Mehlman and Castagnetti then rebranded the firm, adding the names of former Senate Republican leadership aide Dean Rosen, former Federal Trade Commission official David Thomas and former Democratic Senate aide Kelly Bingel, who had all been with the firm since its first years.

“It felt very much like a Hill office, only from the business prism,” Bingel recalls about her decision to join the firm in 2005, while working as the chief of staff to then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). “We’ve been very successful in hiring people who share that ethos.”

With a diverse client list, the firm has no policy specialties, so client work is a team effort, the partners say.

“We’ll have a couple people who are substantive on an issue, and then when it’s time to go to the floor for a fight, we can all come in,” Bingel said.

The midsize firm has played a pivotal role in many legislative fights, including guiding corporate and government officials and lawmakers through the $57 billion merger between Gillette and Procter & Gamble, waging floor battles over the farm bill, and shepherding healthcare CEOs around the Capitol during late-night debates over the Affordable Care Act.

“We have dozens of priorities and you can’t represent an industry like ours by being at the surface,” said Mary Beth Donahue, executive vice president at America’s Health Insurance Plans, another longtime client.

The firm contains former high-level administration, Capitol Hill and campaign operatives, including former GOP Ways and Means Committee aide Sage Eastman, Democratic strategist CR Wooters and Republican operative Elise Pickering.

The firm’s lobbyists excel at “not just getting us meetings and getting us speakers, but being able to go head-to-head on any policy issue,” Donahue said, before adding, “Our [policy] issues never end.”

It also successfully represented United Technologies during the bitter battle with rival General Electric over a second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a program designed in the 1990s that fell out of favor with the Pentagon in 2006. 

Nevertheless, congressional appropriators kept adding funds to the budget that continued the second engine’s development and supported the manufacturing work of GE and Rolls Royce. That boiled over in an intense battle about the funds in 2010, and Congress killed the program the next year. 

“You learn that it’s not about getting everybody to agree on the same conclusion, it’s about bringing in many different-believing folks into a coalition if you can,” Mehlman said of that fight. 

“If you can win a third of the votes you need because they’re deficit hawks, great. If you can win a third of the votes because they’re Defense Department believers … great, we’ll take those too. Then there may be people who think it’s good for their district or good for the environment; we’ll take them also,” he said. “It puts a huge premium on being bipartisan because those guys, whoever those guys are, are bipartisan.”

Over the last decade, K Street at large has also had to adapt to changes in the speed of media; changes in policy, including the ban of earmarks, which were a way to grease a deal; new ethics rules that have paved the way for “shadow lobbyists,” who do similar work but don’t register; and escalating partisanship on Capitol Hill.

“Just because something fails the first time doesn’t mean it’s going to fail a second or third time. I don’t know if it’s going to happen today, tomorrow or six months from now,” Castagnetti said. “But the important part is that you have to continue to work an issue so that you’re ready for when the politics dictate that it’s going to happen.”

But lobbyists, especially Mehlman and Castagnetti, are nothing if not patient. They are already looking forward to pounding the pavement for another 10 years, at least.

“We’re not afraid to go up to the fifth floor of the Cannon building and make a sale,” Castagnetti added.

Cannon is the oldest of the House office buildings. The fifth floor, considered to hold the least desirable office space, is nicknamed the “freshman dorm.”

Castagnetti added, “I’ve always said, I know it’s time for me to get out of the business when I’m afraid to walk up to the fifth floor of the Cannon building.”

 

-- This post was updated on June 3