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The Anti-Lobbyist, Advised by Lobbyists

By Michael D. Shear and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
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.

McCain's top fundraising official is former congressman Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.), who heads a lobbying law firm called the Loeffler Group. He has counseled the Saudis as well as Southwest Airlines, AT&T, Toyota and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Public Citizen, a group that monitors campaign fundraising, has found that McCain has more bundlers -- people who gather checks from networks of friends and associates -- from the lobbying community than any other presidential candidate from either party.

By the group's current count, McCain has at least 59 federal lobbyists raising money for his campaign, compared with 33 working for Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani and 19 working for Democrat Clinton.

"The potential harm is that should Senator McCain become elected, those people will have a very close relationship with the McCain White House," Sloan said. "[That] would be very helpful for their clients, and that would give them a leg up on everybody else."

Of all the lobbyists involved in the McCain campaign, the most prominent is Black, who has made a lucrative career of shuttling back and forth between presidential politics and big-time Washington lobbying. He has worked for the campaigns of former congressman Jack Kemp (N.Y.), former president George H.W. Bush and former senators Phil Gramm (Tex.) and Robert J. Dole (Kan.), all Republicans.

"I've spent a fair amount of my life as a lobbyist, but I've spent a majority of my adult life running Republican political campaigns," Black, 60, said.

His relationship with McCain, for whom he is a senior adviser, goes back more than two decades, from the time McCain first came to Washington. They got to know each other well during Gramm's 1996 presidential run; Gramm, now an investment banker, is a major supporter and adviser to McCain.

But even as Black provides a private voice and a public face for McCain, he also leads his lobbying firm, which offers corporate interests and foreign governments the promise of access to the most powerful lawmakers. Some of those companies have interests before the Senate and, in particular, the Commerce Committee, of which McCain is a member.

Black said he does a lot of his work by telephone from McCain's Straight Talk Express bus.

He said, however, the combination now requires that he work on weekends, which means 80- or even 90-hour weeks. If McCain were to ask him to step up his commitment to the campaign during the general-election battle, Black said he would take a leave or a reduced salary from BKSH and devote himself to electing McCain president.

McCain has long sought to defend his associations with lobbyists, stressing that friendships with them do not influence his independent judgment when it comes to legislative action. In comments to reporters yesterday, he acknowledged those friendships.

"I have many friends who represent various interests, ranging from the firemen to the police to senior citizens to various interests, particularly before my committee," McCain said. "The question is . . . do they have excess or unwarranted influence? And certainly no one ever has in my conduct of my public life and conduct of my legislative agenda."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler, research editor Alice Crites and washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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