After a long hiring drought, Democrats are coming back into vogue on K Street.
The latest sign came yesterday when the Motion Picture Association of America chose a Democrat -- former Kansas congressman and agriculture secretary Dan Glickman -- to succeed its president of 38 years, Jack Valenti.
The recent selection of Glickman and several other Democrats for prominent lobbying jobs indicates a waning of the vaunted power of the "K Street Project," whose goal was to transform Washington's persuasion industry into a Republican bastion. It's also a tip-off that people who make their livings watching government and politics are keeping close tabs on the horse race that is election 2004.
Author and lobbying scholar Michael D. Watkins likens the recent uptick in Democratic employment to a military tactic called "forward placement of supplies." Lobbying managers, anticipating a possible switch in partisan leadership, are simply planning accordingly, he said. "It's also a market indicator of what's going to happen in the election," Watkins added. "People are looking at the tea leaves, and maybe they're beginning to hire from both parties just in case there's a Kerry administration."
This spring the Republican-leaning Business Roundtable ignored well-publicized entreaties by GOP activists and hired a former aide to a Democratic senator to lead its efforts on two of its highest priorities: corporate governance and tort reform. "He was the perfect fit," said Johanna Schneider, spokeswoman for the organization of big-company chief executives.
The Equipment Leasing Association, which represents more than 850 corporations, also disregarded public pressure by prominent GOPers to hire only Republicans and in February named a former Democratic staffer from the Senate. Of his new hire's partisan leaning, Michael J. Fleming, the association's longtime president, said, "I can't say it made much difference."
The choices are part of a broad pattern. According to a review of job listings in Influence.biz, a lobbying newsletter, more than 40 percent of lobbyists with identifiable party backgrounds hired in the past six months have been Democrats. During the same period a year earlier, Democrats constituted only 30 percent of those hired.
During a press conference yesterday, Valenti and Glickman insisted that neither political prognostication nor partisan affiliation had anything to do with the trade association's decision. "This is not a partisan job," Glickman said. But he also said he would "reach out" to congressional Republicans to soothe any wounded feelings. "Some of my closest friends in Congress are Republicans," he added.
K Street Project spokesman Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, fumed that the Glickman hiring was "a mistake. It's goofy. It's a studied insult." The Motion Picture Association's "ability to work with the House and Senate is greatly reduced because they've decided to hire a guy whose claim to fame is that he is a retired Clinton hire," Norquist said.
The K Street Project, which was conceived by Republican leaders in Congress and GOP activists elsewhere, identifies loyal Republican lobbyists and campaign contributors and then encourages lawmakers to welcome them into their offices to the exclusion of others.
The Business Roundtable, one of the capital's most important corporate lobbies, hired Thomas J. Lehner in April to lobby on such high-profile issues as asbestos liability and shareholder rights. Lehner served as chief of staff to Democrat Charles Robb of Virginia while he was in the Senate and is a former treasurer of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The fact that he had Democratic connections was actually a plus.
"We interviewed Republicans and Democrats and this person was the right fit," said spokeswoman Schneider. "Regardless of the outcome of the election, it was important that we get someone who was respected by both Republicans and Democrats equally."
The Arlington-based Equipment Leasing Association retained Democrat David Fenig, aide to Democrat Spark Matsunaga when he was a senator from Hawaii, as its vice president of federal government relations early this year. Fleming, the group's president, said that given the history of regularly changing partisan control in Congress, he decided not to pick from among the hundred applicants someone who was "one-dimensional."
The Recording Industry Association of America and the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association each recently added Democrats to their staffs. So did the American Psychiatric Association and the Retail Industry Leaders Association.
"After the midterm election, it was pretty difficult to find a job as a Democrat," said Camille Osborne, the new communications director for the satellite association and a former Democratic Senate aide. "But I think that's balancing out now. From what I've seen, Democrats are having a little bit more success."
Lobbying firms and corporate offices have been adding Democrats as well. In December, Quinn Gillespie & Associates LLC hired Michael Hacker, a former top staffer to Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan. And in May, Loeffler Jonas & Tuggey LLP, a law firm founded by a retired Republican congressman, Thomas G. Loeffler of Texas, hired a well-known Democrat and a former target of the K Street Project to lead its lobbying practice in the District. Julie Domenick was named managing principal and oversees the work of a dozen or so lobbyists there.
Last year, when Domenick was executive vice president of the Investment Company Institute, Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, pressured the ICI -- the mutual fund industry's trade association -- to replace her with a Republican. ICI did hire a Republican lobbyist, but didn't replace Domenick, and Loeffler has only compliments for his new manager. "[Loeffler] was attracted by her talent and her capability, and that was the sole criteria," said Julian Read, spokesman for the firm. "If [her Democratic affiliation] turns out to be an advantage, I'm sure that's a plus."
Corporations such as Viacom Inc. and Amgen Inc. also recently hired Democrats as staffers in their D.C. offices. Amgen, the Thousand Oaks, Calif., biotech company, in fact, named a former senior aide to Al Gore to head its office. David W. Beier, Amgen's new senior vice president for global government affairs, was the vice president's chief domestic policy adviser.
Beier's move to Amgen in December angered K Street Project spokesman Norquist. "That's not very wise on their part," he said. Speaking of key Republican leaders, Norquist added ominously, "People are aware that this has happened. It's going to be treated seriously."
In March, Amgen brought in a big-name Republican, Rodger Currie, a former lobbyist for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, as Beier's deputy and vice president of government affairs. But the company isn't backing away from Beier as boss.
What's more, Democrats in general are feeling upbeat about their prospects as lobbyists these days. Fred Hatfield, chief of staff to Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), is looking for work since Breaux is retiring. "I haven't noticed a great problem," he said. "From my perspective, there's no lack of interest."
Republicans are still being retained as senior lobbyists in impressive numbers and for an obvious reason: The House, Senate and White House are run by Republicans. Gaining access to them is pivotal to the success of any legislative or regulatory campaign. The GOP-leaning National Association of Manufacturers just named a Republican former governor of Michigan, John M. Engler, as its new president.
But with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) running neck and neck with President Bush in most polls and with the outlook for the Senate a tossup, a wide range of interest groups are filling some of their lobbying and public relations openings with Democrats -- just in case the center of influence switches.
"There is some bet-hedging going on that wasn't going on a year and a half ago," said Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. of Patton Boggs LLP, one of Washington's largest lobbying-law firms.
There are a variety of theories for this new hiring pattern. One is that no matter who wins the White House, the Senate will likely be controlled by so narrow a majority that both Republicans and Democrats will be needed to pass any legislation. Since Republicans have been the favored hires for so long, lobbying groups and firms are adding Democrats to make sure they have access on both sides of the aisle.
"The natural tendency [of lobbying firms] is to be bipartisan," said Joel Jankowsky, who heads the lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. So lately, he said, "there's a balancing going on."
Other lobbyists say the pace of hiring has slowed in general. Uncertainty about the election's outcome is the primary reason. "There's been a general cooling off," said Mark Isakowitz, president of the fast-growing GOP lobbying firm Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock. "Some people are waiting until after the election and will staff up accordingly."
"There are a lot more people looking [for work as lobbyists] than there are people willing to hire," agreed Fleming of the Equipment Leasing Association. Many of his fellow association chieftains, he said, "want to wait and see what kind of government will be coming in, so [they] are waiting until after the election."
"Everybody is very conscious of the fact that the Democratic outlook is better than it was seven or eight months ago," he added.
But proponents of the K Street Project don't see the same signs. The project "is alive and well and even spreading to the states," Norquist said.