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The Cold Calls Behind Those Personal Letters to Congress

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

In the past five years, 44 percent of Americans -- about 100 million people -- have contacted their elected representatives in Washington. Most of them did so at the prompting of a third party -- often a lobbying group -- according to surveys done for the Congressional Management Foundation.

Which is a major reason that Michele Simmons of Tok, Alaska, and Kiym Gardner of Clarksville, Tenn., have steady, stay-at-home jobs.

Simmons and Gardner are among 500 contract workers for Democracy Data & Communications (DDC), an Alexandria company that specializes in lobbying from the grass roots. DDC pays the two women to spend much of their day telephoning people around the country and asking them to sign letters to Congress that press for legislation.

The workers are paid $10 to $15 an hour, depending on their expertise. DDC says lobby groups pay the company $75 to $125 per letter sent, depending on the difficulty of the campaign.

Whether lawmakers know it or not -- and some might be disappointed to learn -- the practice is not only common but growing. Interest groups, preparing for a new president and the sweeping initiatives he no doubt will launch, are increasingly hiring folks like Simmons and Gardner to build lists of voters-back-home who can be called upon to contact Washington.

The seemingly heartfelt letters they produce are among the most persuasive kinds of communications that Congress receives, polls of congressional offices have shown.

Grass-roots recruiters such as Simmons and Gardner act as both salespeople and reporters. They try to persuade the people they call to send a letter on a specific topic and then compose a draft of the missive -- subject to the person's approval -- based on the stories they hear. The people contacted mail, e-mail or fax the letters to their lawmakers in Washington.

The object, said B.R. McConnon III, chief executive of DDC, "is to find real people with real stories."

Simmons, 49, is, in fact, a former journalist. Gardner, 35, once worked in marketing for NASCAR. Both say they enjoy their jobs because they get to talk to people all day and don't have to commute to work. For Simmons, that could mean a 300-mile trek to Fairbanks.

"I work from 30 to 40 hours a week and I'm free to set my own schedule; that sometimes includes weekend work," Simmons said. "I love it. I love all the people I've had the pleasure to speak with. I've learned a lot. I've worked on issues that range from animal testing to Medicare."

"We have a database of folks to contact who for whatever reason have expressed an interest in the issue of the day," Simmons explained. "I try to describe the issue. If they are interested, then I generally go through a series of questions. At the end, I ask them if they want to have a letter composed based on the information they shared with me."

Simmons said she produces an average of one letter per hour. Gardner gins up between four and eight letters a day, she said. And she is happy for the work. "I live in a small town where there aren't a lot of good-paying jobs," she said.

Still, letters from individuals make up a small fraction of the communications to lawmakers. Many, many more contacts are done by e-mail, through millions of messages generated by interest-group Web sites.

DDC will not say who its clients are. But it must have a lot of them. Last year it had 39 projects of this kind. This year, in anticipation of a busy time for advocates from the grass roots in 2009, its pace is even faster.

Ecuador Duel

Two Washington heavyweights have been brought into the fight over how to pay for the repair of an environmental mess in, of all places, Ecuador.

Democratic lobbyist Ben Barnes has been hired by Kohn Swift & Graf, a Philadelphia law firm that's bankrolling a lawsuit in Ecuador to force Chevron to pay potentially billions of dollars to clean up some oil fields and their environs down there -- a controversy that's been simmering for years.

Barnes said he is hoping to raise the dispute's profile in Congress and elsewhere in Washington. He wants to put heat on the company to acknowledge the contamination and agree to fix it.

Chevron says that the suit is without merit and that the company and its predecessor in Ecuador did the required remediation long ago. It has been using McLarty Associates, headed by former Clinton White House chief of staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, to help it deal with the government of Ecuador, a spokesman for McLarty said.

Hire of the Week

A well-known Washington pilot is about to take the controls of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Craig L. Fuller, 57, a former vice presidential chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, has been named the organization's new president, replacing Phil Boyer, who is slated to retire at the end of the year.

Fuller has held a variety of jobs since leaving the White House. He was president of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and led the board of directors practice for Korn/Ferry International, an executive search firm.

Through it all, he has been a pilot, which makes his fit in the new position much easier. Fuller learned to fly when he was in high school and still logs at least 200 hours a year in his Beech Bonanza A36.

"Craig is a committed 40-year pilot, aircraft owner and AOPA member," said William C. Trimble III, the association's chairman. "He is as comfortable with fellow pilots and 'hangar talk' as he is facing a congressional committee."

Gas Stations Push Back

You're not the only one angry about high fuel prices. So are the middlemen who bring it to you: owners of gas stations, deliverers of heating oil and proprietors of truck stops.

Their lobby group, the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, is battling back in the particular way that it can. It has distributed brochures, countertop posters and pump-top signs that carry a single message: Stop the high-finance speculation that it maintains is adding to the price.

"Hedge funds and investment bankers are gaming the system, using loopholes to drive up the cost of energy and reap record profits," reads a card meant for display on gas station counters.

The card goes on to suggest that customers visit a Web site, http://www.stopoilspeculators.com, and use it to send a message of protest to Congress.

"Consumers have been at the mercy of Wall Street traders for too long," said Dan Gilligan, president of the association. "We hope to ignite a firestorm of attention over the unchecked trading that these speculators continue to engage in."

Financial institutions, by the way, disagree with Gilligan and his group, and are telling lawmakers directly that it would be a bad idea to rein in investments in energy contracts.

Please send e-mail to kstreet@washpost.com.

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