Lobbyist who wants Senate seat back receiving criticism

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 11, 2010; A23

If there were any question where lobbying ranks in popularity these days, the attacks on former senator Dan Coats of Indiana over the past week provide a pretty clear answer.

Coats, a Republican who served in Congress for nearly 20 years, is preparing a run to win back the seat occupied by Sen. Evan Bayh (D). National Republicans see an opportunity to target Bayh for his support of President Obama's stimulus and health-care plans.

The problem for Coats is that he spent a good part of the past decade as a well-connected Washington lobbyist, which doesn't bode well politically in the age of tea partiers and grass-roots anger at Wall Street.

The former senator has had scores of corporate lobbying clients over the years, including health-care firms (Amgen, United Health Group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), bailout recipients (Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch) and communications companies (BellSouth, Sprint Nextel, Verizon). Another past client is Cerberus Capital Management, where Dan Quayle -- whose seat Coats took over in the Senate -- is a top executive.

Lobbying disclosure records also show that Coats represented foreign firms or governments that could prove controversial, including the Indian government and Bombardier, a Canadian aerospace firm. Coats also represented a Texas oil-and-gas company that partnered with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, records show.

Democrats wasted little time attacking Coats's lobbying background, or criticizing his long absence from Indiana (he lives and votes in Virginia) and his ownership of a second home, in North Carolina. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee highlighted Coats's work in 2000 and 2001 for the lobbying firm Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, which had foreign clients, including the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

"With all his lobbying for special interests, Hoosiers can only come to the conclusion that Coats stands with foreign countries and Wall Street banks, not with them," said Deirdre Murphy, national press secretary for the DSCC.

Republicans portray Bayh as the real Washington insider, taking aim at his growing wealth while in office and his $1.8 million beach house in Delaware. "The character assault on Senator Coats by Evan Bayh and his allies makes clear that Bayh knows he can't win on the issues that truly matter to voters, like health care, jobs and spending," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Alas, Republicans should have seen this coming: Lobbyists have long ranked low in the public's mind.

A 2008 Gallup poll placed lobbyists dead last among 21 professions, finishing well behind car salesmen, bankers and (gasp!) even journalists. A whopping 64 percent of Americans viewed the "honesty and ethical standards" of lobbyists as "low" or "very low."

"It's a big cross to bear," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. "Someone having a history of being a major lobbyist, that's going to become an issue in a campaign, especially now. . . . I would say that gives him a very severe uphill battle."

No acceptance exceptions

Former U.S. senators aren't the only ones running into trouble because of their lobbying careers. Bill Owen, a former Tennessee state senator and an elected Democratic National Committee delegate, was disinvited last week from a DNC fundraiser for President Obama because he's also a registered lobbyist.

The background: Owen, 62, says he received a call from a DNC representative several weeks ago inviting him to a reception for Obama on the evening of Feb. 4 at the Capitol Hilton. Owen, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., was thrilled, renting an SUV and arriving in Washington a day ahead of time. "I was looking forward to it," he said. "I'm certainly an Obama supporter."

But then Owen got another call from the DNC, this time telling him he couldn't attend because of rules barring lobbyists from Obama fundraising events, even though Owen was not making a donation.

Owen said in an interview that he has had a modest lobbying practice since the mid-1990s. His mostly local clientele includes Lincoln Memorial University, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Jewelry Television, records show. "I'm not a high-paid super-lobbyist," Owen said. "I'm just a poor schmuck out here in Knoxville trying to make a living."

DNC spokesman Brad Woodhouse said in an e-mail that the incident stemmed from the DNC's policy of refusing presidential contributions from lobbyists or political action committees. He declined to say whether others were also disinvited.

Obama and DNC Chairman Timothy M. Kaine "are committed to this policy even if it is a policy some of our allies object to," Woodhouse said.

The Influence Industry column will appear weekly.

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