New group offers rare entry to White House for K Street

A new business trade group run by Democrats close to President Obama may offer K Street an avenue into a White House extremely wary of lobbyists.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to and close friend of Obama; Michael Strautmanis, Jarrett’s chief of staff; and Tina Tchen, the White House public liaison director, met with more than 40 executives and lobbyists from several Fortune 500 companies at a reception last Friday at the Hay-Adams Hotel.

The reception was the first official function sponsored by Business Forward, a new trade group founded by several Democratic consultants.

Some lobbyists said Jarrett’s appearance was a huge selling point for the new group.

“If I am a company and if I see these folks are delivering Valerie Jarrett, I am signing up because there are few people in town who can deliver her right now,” a Democratic lobbyist said.

Although the meeting included lobbyists from several major companies, Jim Doyle, Business Forward’s executive director, said the group’s main focus is attracting corporate executives who may be new to the political scene.

“We are trying to establish a platform to keep these business leaders involved,” said Doyle, a former Clinton Commerce official.

The Friday reception was the first of several briefings the group has planned. It plans to invite other administration officials as well as congressional aides and political strategists to brief their member companies.

Several former aides to President Obama and other high-profile Democrats are associated with the new group. Business Forward’s board includes Erik Smith, a paid media adviser to Obama’s campaign, and David Sutphen, former general counsel to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and now a partner with the Brunswick Group, the public-relations giant.

Also involved are Hilary Rosen, the former chairwoman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, and Julie Andreeff Jensen, who directed get-out-the-vote efforts in Pennsylvania for the Obama campaign. Both now work at Brunswick.

There are also family connections between the group and Obama’s circle of advisers.

Sutphen is the brother of Mona Sutphen, deputy White House chief of staff. Doyle is married to Patti Solis Doyle, who worked for both Hillary Rodham Clinton’s and Obama’s presidential campaigns.

Several lobbyists said the association is targeting the tech industry in particular. AT&T, Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Pfizer and Time Warner were named as potential recruits.

Doyle said the association is seeking a 501(c)(6) tax status, which is for trade groups, from the IRS.

“We are going to focus on events and policy briefings. We do not expect to lobby,” Doyle said.

Membership fees are expected to be $75,000 for founding companies and $1,500 for small businesses.

The formation of the new association comes at a time when the White House has ramped up its criticism of K Street.

Last Friday, Obama announced new rules to limit the interaction between administration officials and lobbyists regarding projects in the stimulus package. Lobbyists will have to submit materials to be published online, and their meetings with officials will also be disclosed publicly.

Lobbyists say they are finding it difficult to set up meetings or get their calls returned by officials in the White House — even longtime friends made in former campaigns or congressional offices years ago.

“You have lobbyists shut out of the game,” said the Democratic lobbyist.

“In the end, they don’t want to be a liability,” the lobbyist added, talking about White House aides.

Some business trade association representatives see Business Forward as an invention of the White House to create a fissure within the business community, which typically leans Republican.

“The president is trying to convince businesses to join this new association to replace the Chamber [of Commerce], NFIB [National Federation of Independent Business], NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] and the Wholesalers all in one,” said Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), one of the few business groups to oppose Obama’s stimulus package.

“Obama’s policies are so viscerally anti-business that it makes no sense to join this group.”

Doyle rejected the contention that administration aides are behind the association, saying they plan to have Republicans and independents join the group.

“We are very pleased to have the support of the administration, but this is an opportunity created by the 2008 campaign. We want to create a way to have these people stay involved and speak as business leaders, not just as supporters,” Doyle said.

Having a reliable voice of support from the business community for his policies would be a powerful political weapon for Obama as he works to right the economy. During the stimulus debate, the White House would often trumpet support from CEOs and business groups for the recovery effort.

Groups like the Chamber and NAM, though, have been much less enthusiastic about his budget goals.