Legislators, lobbyists mix business with pleasure

Staff, lawmakers, lobbyists mix professionally and socially – but usually within limits, they say

mlocke@newsobserver.comJune 3, 2012 

The day’s official work is done. Two blocks from the Legislative Building, dozens of lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists begin their after-hours fun, feasting on beer and barbecue, courtesy of the N.C. Beer and Wine Wholesalers.

A legislator in a bow tie spots a young woman in a sundress and kisses her on the cheek. A young legislative aide with a bare midriff cradles a beer and tilts her head back to laugh at something a legislator said. A male lobbyist wanders by just in time to hear the punch line. Nearby, legislative aides whisper about peers rumored to be sleeping with legislators and lobbyists.

Legislators are back in town for their summer session, mixing business with pleasure. During the day, they debate bills and, behind the scenes, listen to lobbyists vying for their attention. In the evenings, the social events, more like sorority-fraternity mixers than business meetings, include more women in sundresses than in suits, more laughter than debate, more nicknames than salutations.

Sometimes, the lines between work and play get blurred.

In late April, Charles Thomas, a former legislator and chief of staff to House Speaker Thom Tillis, resigned after being confronted by a News & Observer reporter about an extramarital affair with a lobbyist for the North Carolina Home Builders Association. Days later, another Tillis aide quit after revealing she had an inappropriate relationship with a male lobbyist.

Many who work at the General Assembly met the news with a shrug, saying it’s an unfortunate yet unremarkable indiscretion by only a handful of the people who spend their days at the legislature. And these liaisons are not without precedent. Given the number of people who work at the legislature, sexual affairs are bound to happen.

The people of North Carolina send 170 legislators to Raleigh to pass laws and divvy up $20 billion in tax money each year, and thousands of private corporations, nonprofits and professional associations want a say in what they decide. The 750 or so lobbyists they hire will float among lawmakers day and night, seeking an audience with the lawmakers and their staff of 223.

Sometimes, it’s good information and sound research. Occasionally, it’s a college connection or the possibility of help in the next campaign. Sometimes, it’s old-fashioned flirtation.

Lobbying is all about relationships and familiarity with lawmakers and their staff, and those dynamics can be tricky to manage.

“I think [legislators] only answer the phone calls of people they know,” said Jane Pinsky, a longtime lobbyist at the General Assembly who now lobbies for reforms in the trade. “If the person you know is a lobbyist and is a personal friend you are sleeping with, you are going to take their call and hear what they are doing. This is about relationships.”

Sense of entitlement

Sex scandals have sullied the legislature as long as men have made laws. Some ruined marriages or beget new ones. Others required more prudent lawmakers to publicly chide their wayward colleague, and sometimes, quietly send him home.

When Rep. Ken Miller was accused of making a sexual advance toward a 16-year-old page working at the General Assembly in 1995, another lawmaker filed a complaint that launched an ethics hearing. When Rep. Cary Allred bear hugged a female page in 2009 after drinking before a floor session, his colleagues scolded him and pressed him to resign.

Lasting romances have been born in the legislature. Freshman legislator Michael Gorman proposed to a legislative aide from the House floor in 2003. Lobbyist Gregg Thompson met his wife, Nancy, another lobbyist, at the legislature. Rep. Leo Daughtry met his wife, Helen, a lobbyist, when she came by and tried to talk to him about a bill.

“That’s when I started lobbying her for a date,” said Daughtry, a Smithfield Republican.

The legislature is like many intense workplaces, such as Wall Street or campaigns. People work long hours in tense situations, breeding a sense of familiarity not felt at more traditional nine-to-five companies. And at the General Assembly, the weight of what they do – drafting and changing laws that affect lives – brings a heaviness that can puff egos.

“For many of the men who are elected to the General Assembly, there’s a sense of invulnerability and entitlement,” said Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake County Democrat who began her career as a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dressing to impress

Late last month, the House of Representatives stood to applaud a doctor from Charlotte and a third-grade class that was visiting the legislature. At the start of session, a representative led them in prayer, asking God to show them the right path.

At the front of the room, a teenage girl, a page visiting for the week, stood before a lectern in a spandex dress that hugged her thighs six inches above her knee. A few minutes later, a lawmaker flagged her over with a $10 bill and sent her to the cafeteria to fetch him something to drink.

Mostly, the sexual tensions and flirtations are subtle yet palpable. The lobbyist who addresses a lawmaker as “sweetie.” An arm brushed. A rear end admired. The off-color joke shared.

The older lobbyists and lawmakers say it just feels more obvious now. Though many more women have broken into the lobbying trade – more than 200 now compared to the dozen or so women who lobbied in the 1980s – they are still a minority.

The legislature, though, is still dominated by males. The average age still hovers near 60, and less than 25 percent of legislators are women.

Amy Fullbright, president of the North Carolina Professional Lobbyists Association, says that the overwhelming majority of lobbyists, both men and women, work hard and professionally educate lawmakers who face too many choices with too little information. And the female lobbyists, especially those who began their trade when few women were in the field, worked hard to be seen as professionals.

“Women lobbyists believe we have to work harder, and I think legislators recognize that,” she said.

But some of the young women joining the lobbying profession now, unlike their predecessors, are embracing a dress code their mentors avoided in the 1980s and 1990s.

Hem lines are rising and heels are getting higher, older female lobbyists note. Pantyhose are mostly a thing of the past.

Paula Wolf, a longtime lobbyist for progressive causes, complains about the new fashions to her colleagues and suggests it’s sending a confusing message. Now and again, she will pull a young female lobbyist aside and recommend she dress more modestly. Wolf insists that her interns wear hose, avoid high heels and button their blouses as high as they can.

“When I see a female lobbyist dressing and acting like she is a professional in some other type of profession, that diminishes me,” Wolf said. “I work hard. I’m smart, and I care about how I look.”

‘Alcohol and egos’

Lawmakers come to Raleigh and become important. Staff and legislators feed that, hanging on the legislators’ every word, making them think they are funny and fascinating.

“People come to Raleigh who may not be so very important in their county,” said Wolf. But in the legislature, “They’ve been sought after, wined and dined, taken on golf trips. It sometimes changes a person, makes you think that rules do not apply. And that no one is watching.”

Most legislators are plucked from their home lives. In Raleigh, there’s no spouse to see for dinner, no weekly grocery store run, no dog to walk or lunch to make.

“There is down time and alcohol and egos,” said Ross, the Wake legislator. “It’s easy to see what happens.”

Many female lobbyists, especially those who began their careers decades ago when few women worked in the field, said they encountered inappropriate comments and interactions with lawmakers over the years. Ross, who is married, recalls being asked out on a date by a now-retired lawmaker when she was a lobbyist.

Wolf remembers lawmakers who referred to her as a “good girl.” Roz Savitt, a retired lobbyist, recalls a fellow female lobbyist being sexually harassed by a legislator. Complaints to higher-ranking lawmakers were ignored, she said.

A ‘marketing strategy’

More women work as lobbyists at the General Assembly than ever before, though they are still in the minority.

Daughtry, the legislator, said that many women have a natural aptitude for lobbying.

“Clearly, the female lobbyist has an advantage,” Daughtry said. “If it’s an attractive female, the male [legislator] would invite them inside. They have a natural entree.”

These days, small advantages are even more important. In 2006, lawmakers outlawed much of the wining and dining that had been commonplace at the General Assembly for decades. No more could lobbyists foot the bill for a $40 steak at Sullivan’s. Now, unless all legislators or a designated subset are invited to an event, everyone must pay his or her own way.

Lobbyists now must draw upon relationships, shared interests and, if they must, charm and attractiveness. Some of the older lobbyists hire younger attractive women to work the General Assembly; some around the building call them “bait” because they are supposed to help their colleague get a meeting with a lawmaker.

Daughtry says dressing attractively is an effective strategy for some female lobbyists.

“If you are young and attractive, that’s part of a marketing strategy,” he said.

Pinsky, the lobbyist who lobbies for ethics in her trade, agrees.

“If you can’t entertain anymore, having an attractive blond makes a difference,” she said. “It’s still a place where the majority of the legislators are white men over 60. They are flattered by the attention.”

Some female lobbyists worry that the recent sex scandal will diminish those female lobbyists who abide the unwritten rules of professionalism and keep their sexual relationships out of the General Assembly. And they fear that successful female lobbyists will be subjected to gossip that they used more than smarts and good research to sway legislators to vote their way.

Fullbright, the lobbyists’ president, said it’s important to not think that the recent liaisons between lobbyists and staff suggest there’s rampant disregard for professional standards in the field.

“We have more than 720 lobbyists down here,” she said. “We know of two incidents. We have got to recognize the vast majority of us are doing our jobs professionally and respectfully.”

Locke: 919-829-8927

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