The Anti-Lobbyist, Advised by Lobbyists
Friday, February 22, 2008
For years, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has railed against lobbyists and the influence of "special interests" in Washington, touting on his campaign Web site his fight against "the 'revolving door' by which lawmakers and other influential officials leave their posts and become lobbyists for the special interests they have aided."
But when McCain huddled with his closest advisers at his rustic Arizona cabin last weekend to map out his presidential campaign, virtually every one was part of the Washington lobbying culture he has long decried. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, co-founded a lobbying firm whose clients have included Verizon and SBC Telecommunications. His chief political adviser, Charles R. Black Jr., is chairman of one of Washington's lobbying powerhouses, BKSH and Associates, which has represented AT&T, Alcoa, JPMorgan and U.S. Airways.
Senior advisers Steve Schmidt and Mark McKinnon work for firms that have lobbied for Land O' Lakes, UST Public Affairs, Dell and Fannie Mae.
McCain's relationship with lobbyists became an issue this week after it was reported that his aides asked Vicki Iseman, a telecom lobbyist, to distance herself from his 2000 presidential campaign because it would threaten McCain's reputation for independence. An angry and defiant McCain denounced the stories yesterday, declaring: "At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust."
Even before McCain finished his news conference, uber-lobbyist Black made the rounds of television networks to defend McCain against charges that he has been tainted by his relationship with a lobbyist. Black's current clients include General Motors, United Technologies, JPMorgan and AT&T.
Black said he is still being paid by his firm and does work for clients in his "spare time," recusing himself from lobbying McCain: "I not only do not lobby him [McCain], but if an issue comes up that I have a client on, I will tell him that and stay out of the discussion."
A common career path for political operatives is a lucrative job at a Washington lobbying firm that allows them to continue campaign work, and McCain is hardly the first candidate to draw on that talent pool. The campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has been aided by lobbyists Harold Ickes and Mark Penn, who heads Burson Marsteller Worldwide. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has been advised by former senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who is not a registered lobbyist but advises clients about Washington.
In McCain's case, the fact that lobbyists are essentially running his presidential campaign -- most of them as volunteers -- seems to some people to be at odds with his anti-lobbying rhetoric. "He has a closer relationship with lobbyists than he lets on," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "The problem for McCain being so closely associated with lobbyists is that he's the candidate most closely associated with attacking lobbyists."
Davis did not respond to requests for an interview. Black, acting as a campaign spokesman, said that Davis is being paid neither by his firm nor by the McCain campaign, and has not been a registered lobbyist for three years.
Schmidt and McKinnon said they remain with their firms, but are not lobbyists and have recused themselves from the issues of their clients in the McCain campaign. "I've never discussed a client issue with the candidate or his staff," McKinnon said in an e-mail.
Campaign finance experts said employees of a company are allowed to volunteer for a campaign as long as they do so on their own time, or continue to perform the functions for which their employers are paying them.
McCain's reliance on lobbyists for key jobs -- both in the Senate and in his presidential campaign -- extends beyond his inner circle. McCain recently hired Mark Buse to be his Senate chief of staff. Buse led the Commerce Committee staff in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was until last fall a lobbyist for ML Strategies, representing eBay, Goldman Sachs Group, Cablevision, Tenneco and Novartis Pharmaceuticals.