Jenkins: Lobbyists adjust to the GOP

jjenkins@newsobserver.comAugust 2, 2012 

  • Jim Jenkins

    Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins is a Raleigh native, a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (history and English), and a veteran of four decades in the newspaper business, the last two and a half of them at The News & Observer.

    He has previously worked as an editor at The Fayetteville Observer and as a columnist at the Greensboro News & Record.

    He can be reached at jjenkins@newsobserver.com. or 829-4513.

The transfer of power from Democrats to Republicans in the General Assembly has created a lot of confusion and turmoil in the ranks of that most attentive legion of those who tear at the hem of lawmakers’ garments while managing that most challenging of feats, bowing, scraping and saluting all at the same time. Meaning, lobbyists.

Oh, Mercy. See, it turns out that if you’re a special interest group, a type of business, developers interested in regulation (or deregulation) and such, you quickly figure out that Republican lawmakers would like you to do business with Republican lobbyists. And so a bunch of these special interests have gone out and found ’em one.

Oh, and while we’re thinking about it, that opening line about the “transfer of power”? Let’s change that to “the loss of power by Democrats to Republicans when in the last election the GOP threw ’em to the polling place floor, mopped it and then swept the parking lot with ’em.”

OK, so back to this lobbyist business. One of the most anticipated announcements of the year comes from the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan outfit here in Raleigh run by Ran Coble, one of the most savvy guys in town. And just out is the annual ranking of lobbyists in terms of effectiveness based on a survey of lobbyists, legislators and news correspondents.

Since the Republican ascendancy, things have gone a little topsy turvy, and Republican lobbyists have undergone a transformation similar to ... well, let’s just say after a few decades of being the ugly stepsisters, they’re like Cinderella with no midnight curfew.

This is not to say that all the Democratic lobbyists are locked outside and prohibited from having fried squash in the legislative cafeteria on Wednesdays. Yes, John B. McMillan, the top-ranked lobbyist in the 2009-2010 session, has dropped to 4th place. But he’s still got a host of clients and 4th is not bad at all. (Also, if a person doesn’t like John McMillan, there is something seriously wrong with that individual.)

But with Republicans in, there was room at the top and the first spot was taken by Dana E. Simpson, who was no slouch before but is doing mighty fine. And in second place: Rookie lobbyist and former N.C. GOP chair Tom “Good Golly His Suits Are Even Fancier” Fetzer, the affable ex-mayor of Raleigh. First time in the game, Fetzer is way up.

And so on for Republicans. You have to love Simpson’s high-minded quote for the Center, about his duty on Jones Street: “My job is to help our clients provide relevant, accurate, and timely information, so legislators can make well-informed policy decisions.”

Big D, that is admirable. But everyone knows a lobbyist’s job is to kill off legislation that clients don’t like and promote legislation they do like. At session’s end, clients don’t go to lobbyists and say, “Thanks for keeping our lawmakers well-informed ...” They say, “Hey, ’preciate you killing that regulatory bill, man. Clean air and water would cost us a bundle.”

Some lobbying firms, of course, have tried to work both sides of the aisle by having Republican and Democratic lobbyists on board. I don’t know why this doesn’t make sense for everybody. Working on a Democrat? Take the Prius and talk things over at the Roast Grill. Republican lawmaker needs a push? Go get your guy with the Caddy and head to the Cardinal Club. Simple. One invoice goes on recycled paper; the other has a watermark.

Another interesting thing to study out of Ran’s survey every year are the clients represented, the organizations that actually retain lobbyists. Some of the more intriguing ones this year: the Motion Picture Association of America (is Renee Zellweger in town and nobody told me?), the School Nutrition Association of N.C. (uh, oh, somebody’s after the nutritionists?), the N.C. Museum of Art Foundation (trying to get Republican leaders to forget their “Velvet Elvis Collection” idea?), the N.C. Youth Camp Association (must be in a nasty fight with the YMCAs or something), the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds (probably complications after a wild convention) and the N.C. Portable Toilet Group (even we are going to leave that alone).

According to the Center, there were about 4.7 lobbyists for ever legislator, House and Senate, at the end of 2011. (The number is around 800 lobbyists and 170 lawmakers.) A veteran news correspondent once simplified for a visitor the way to tell one group from the other: “One group can explain the details and nuances of legislation, knows where the most important offices are, can find the bathrooms on their own and can drop in on the governor any time. The other group is the legislature.”

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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