Airline Lobbyist's Job Is a Dogfight

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

At the end of another tough day of wrangling with government officials, James C. May sat, tie askew, in his big, brown leather chair and sighed. "A lot of people shoot at you," he said. "To cope, you need a good hard shell."

May, president of the Air Transport Association (ATA), is a bear of a man. But even he has grown weary of catching flak lately -- and dispensing so much of it, too.

He and his 100-person association, the airlines' chief lobby, face opponents everywhere they turn: in the Bush administration, in other travel-related industries and even within aviation. May, in other words, is not what people imagine a lobbyist to be -- someone who loves to be liked. He's what a lobbyist actually is most of the time, a warrior against his client's enemies.

And the airlines have plenty of those, more than most other businesses. "Over the years we've done a lot of things to shoot ourselves in the foot," May said.

Members of Congress have privately been bad-mouthing the airlines for years, especially since they became the only industry to get a multibillion-dollar bailout (a term May strongly objects to) in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Still, to keep their fragile finances intact, the airlines have continued to push hard for additional benefits.

"People don't have an appreciation of how complicated this business is," May said.

Corporate-jet owners understand pretty well, yet they still think the airlines are being too grabby by pressing to fund the air traffic control system with a higher tax on jet fuel -- a method that would boost payments from them and probably cut payments from commercial carriers.

The government also has butted heads with the ATA; the Department of Homeland Security wants to improve border security by taking the fingerprints of foreigners flying out of the United States. But the ATA is fighting to prevent the feds from collecting the prints at airline counters, a move that it says would make getting through airports even more inconvenient than it already is.

The ATA has even clashed with others in the travel industry. It aggressively opposed one proposal by the Discover America Partnership, a coalition of industry groups, that would have paid for a visit-America ad campaign by imposing a modest per-ticket entry or exit fee. That, too, would have discouraged fliers, the ATA said.

"We won that fight," May said with a satisfied grin.

The ATA's friends and rivals just shake their heads at that sort of abrasiveness. But they have come to accept that's the way the group operates. In fact, a coalition that includes private aircraft owners has taken out ads that depict the airlines as sharks in a feeding frenzy.

May, 61, grew up in the capital area. He is the son of Rep. Catherine May (R-Wash.) and was part of the first graduating class of Bethesda's Walt Whitman High School in 1964. May did not finish college (he attended the University of Washington); he served as a Marine Corps captain in Vietnam and tried unsuccessfully to win the House seat his mother had held.

His career otherwise has been largely as a lobbyist. He was mentored by the legendary George Koch at the Grocery Manufacturers of America and earned his reputation as a hard-charging advocate during his 15 years at the National Association of Broadcasters. He took over the ATA in 2003.

May's latest job has proved to be even more complicated and contentious than his work with the broadcasters, which was not a milquetoast assignment by any means. "I believed naively that this was a deregulated business," he said. "It's one of the most highly regulated businesses in the world."

"Sometimes it seems like I live in Kip Hawley's back pocket," he said, referring to the head of the Transportation Security Administration.

That means he sighs at the end of almost every day. "I feel like I was rode hard and put away wet," May said, evoking the old cowboy saying. "That's my life."

New Chief for Restaurant Group

The National Restaurant Association has a new president: Dawn M. Sweeney, currently the head of AARP's business ventures.

The appointment, scheduled to be announced today, puts a woman at the helm of the nearly 50,000-member group for the first time in its 88-year history and promises to convert the place from a reliable Republican bastion into something more even-handed.

"The challenge in any effective organization today is to find friends where you need them, that are important to the industry, and that's how I will approach it," Sweeney said in an interview.

Sweeney, 47, is not affiliated with a political party. Her predecessor, Steven C. Anderson, now chief of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, is a well-known Republican.

Sweeney has worked for the AARP, the senior citizens' lobby, since 1999, and since 2002 she has been in charge of AARP Services, its more than $700 million-a-year business operation. She supervises 250 people there and oversaw massive businesses including mutual funds and health insurance.

She has worked at associations in a variety of capacities since she graduated from Colby College: first for the International Dairy Foods Association and then the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. She hails from tiny Westbrook, Maine, where her father was once the mayor.

Dozens of people in town wanted the restaurant association job; one person who was rumored to be interested and who chose not to pursue it is Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, industry sources said.

Picking Sides on Private Equity

It's hard to imagine, but cash continues to pour into the fight by private equity firms -- the new moneybags of Wall Street -- to beat back two bills that would raise their taxes.

Among the latest hires: Democrat Kenneth Levine of Levine & Greelegs has been retained by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, a private equity firm that wants to go public. Also, Bain Capital of Boston has added Public Strategies Washington, including Paul M. Snyder and Joseph P. O'Neill.

The two main honchos of private equity's defense are Republican fundraiser Wayne L. Berman of Ogilvy Government Relations and Kenneth B. Mehlman, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee who is now with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

It's almost easier to mention the people who are not on a private equity payroll. One of them is Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who -- for philosophical reasons -- is putting together an anti-tax-hike coalition to help the firms out.

But Norquist does not want to remain pro bono. "I would be delighted to have nice private equity people shower us with cash," he said. "You should probably put our address in the paper."

On the more threadbare side of the dispute, a couple of gadfly groups -- OMB Watch and Citizens for Tax Justice -- are forming their own coalition to try to shut down what they call the private equity firms' "tax loophole."

Let the games begin!

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