When Juan Jose Perez, an Ohio delegate, formally placed George W. Bush's name in nomination for president Monday, two men stood by to make sure there were no mistakes.
One was high-profile lobbyist Mark Isakowitz, whose clients include Intel Corp., Mutual of Omaha Insurance Co. and the Recording Industry Association of America. The other was Bruce A. Gates, who has represented pharmaceutical and insurance companies and banking interests.
This week, Isakowitz and Gates are focused on only two clients: President Bush and the Republican Party. And they are not alone: From top to bottom, Washington lobbyists are playing key roles in running the Republican National Convention here.
The convention chief executive officer, Bill Harris, last year registered to lobby on behalf of Quest Software Inc. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform. The chairman of the convention's arrangements committee, David A. Norcross, has lobbied for a variety of defense contractors, including Raytheon Corp. and Boeing Co. Lobbyist Bryce L. "Larry" Harlow, who is in charge of "official proceedings," represents Visa, insurance interests, Budweiser and drug companies.
Lobbyists have played a time-honored role of assisting both parties in staging their quadrennial national conventions. But rarely has one party granted industry advocates so central a part in nominating a presidential and vice presidential candidate, a development that has drawn criticism from some watchdog groups.
"Lobbyists are there to serve the interests of their clients," said Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "By putting them in important roles in the convention, they are bringing the corporate interests they represent further into the party. . . . That gives them an extra inside track that other people don't have."
For many Washington lobbying firms, convention work is crucial to maintaining close ties to elected and appointed Republican officials who have advanced an aggressively pro-business agenda during the past decade. The Bush administration's policies have been especially beneficial to many of the lobbyists' corporate and trade association clients, including the pharmaceutical, financial and energy industries.
Lobbyists have also found that maintaining a strong and visible presence at the convention is useful in impressing their clients, many of whom, at the behest of their lobbyists, are here throwing parties for Senate and House members, governors, party officials and Capitol Hill staffers.
While more prominent lobbyists such as Isakowitz and Gates have been given high-profile assignments at the GOP convention, about 100 others are doing the grunt work. These men and women make sure speakers get on and off the podium on schedule. They escort elected officials and their families to the convention floor. They run the floor whip operation, directing delegates through all their duties, from waving placards to attending platform committee meetings. They also served as senior staffers for the committee that wrote the party platform.
Anne Phelps, for example, is executive director of the Platform Committee. Her lobbying clients include the Ho-Chunk Nation Indian tribe of Wisconsin and FMC Technology Inc. In a news release that made no mention of Phelps's lobbying work, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said: "We are fortunate to have such talented people join us as the 2004 Platform Committee works to craft a proposal that reflects the president's goals and the beliefs of our party."
Gillespie, who was a lobbyist until he assumed the RNC chairmanship 13 months ago, defended lobbyists at the convention.
"A lot of these people have expertise and have worked on the Hill and have worked at conventions for a long time," Gillespie said Tuesday during a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters. Asked whether the party had become dependent on registered lobbyists, Gillespie replied: "I don't know that we are dependent on them. I do know that they volunteer and they help out and, you know, they do as they are directed to."
Some of the lobbyists-officials were hard to miss on the convention floor. Walter F. Buchholtz, a lobbyist for Exxon Mobil Corp., wore the yellow baseball cap assigned to all members of the "whip" organization as he assisted delegates from Louisiana and Kentucky. "We just make sure everything runs smoothly," he said.
Nearby, Stan Anderson, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wearing a RNC staff identity badge, said he was working with the Committee on Operations. He said he helps "with all the little details" that keep a convention going.
To be sure, many lobbyists and lawyers volunteered to work at the Democratic National Convention last month in Boston. But there were far fewer lobbyists directly involved in floor and podium proceedings. GOP convention officials assigned virtually all their top jobs to registered federal lobbyists.
This difference partly stems from an aggressive effort by Republican congressional leaders to force Washington's major lobby firms and trade associations to hire GOP operatives for top posts. This project, run by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, is called "the K Street Project," for the street where many lobbyists have downtown offices.
The reliance on lobbyists has historical roots. After the 1980 election, Republican political consultants Charles R. Black Jr., Roger Stone and Paul Manafort broke ground by going "double-breasted." They ran electoral campaigns for senators and House members, and, after the elections, would lobby the men and women they put in office on behalf of high-paying corporations and associations. They effectively pierced the wall that had separated political operatives from registered lobbyists.
Black, who has worked on every Republican presidential campaign since 1980, modestly describes himself as "a third-string spokesman" at the convention. In fact, he is part of an elite convention "media team" that represents Bush and the GOP on talk shows on cable networks
Other team members include Kenneth M. Duberstein, whose Duberstein Group represents America's Health Insurance Plans and Time Warner Inc.; and Ed Rogers, of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, LLC, which represents Pfizer Inc., the Lorillard Tobacco Co. and Raytheon Co. On television, they are identified as campaign spokesmen or Republican strategists, and rarely, if ever, as lobbyists.
Duberstein's firm has long specialized in sending its top lobbyists to both the nominating conventions: Duberstein to the GOP's and his partner, Michael S. Berman, a former top aide to Vice President Walter F. Mondale, to the Democrats, where he has run the podium operation. "Every four years we devote two weeks, which is great," Duberstein said.
While Black, Isakowitz and others are open about their roles here, party and convention officials are not. "We do not give out the names of any of our volunteers," said Alyssa McCoenning, deputy press secretary for the Republican convention. Convention officials have, for example, released the names of 155 youths working as pages here.
In a telephone conversation lasting about 45 seconds, Harlow said, "I just can't [talk] at this time; I have too many other things to do. Thank you for calling."
Typically, this is how the volunteer lobbyists work: Patti Coons, a delegate from Indiana, wanted to know when her delegation would be called on Monday afternoon to vote to nominate Bush. She consulted with Isakowitz, who opened a manila folder and read from a minute-by-minute schedule. "Very organized," Coons said approvingly as she walked back toward her seat.
Coons knew to ask Isakowitz because he was wearing a Secret Service-like earpiece and a telltale red hat.
The red hats are for those working under Harlow at official proceedings. Whenever delegates grabbed a microphone and cast a vote or spoke from the floor, red hats hovered close by. Such was the case when Wyoming nominated Vice President Cheney for a second term and when Alaska delegates voted for Bush.
In addition, the GOP convention's "government affairs" operation boasts an additional 50 or so people, most of them Washington lobbyists.
Their job is to look after members of Congress and other government officials. Lobbyists and congressional staffers are favored for this because they easily recognize elected officials and rescue them if need be.
At the Democratic convention, very few lobbyists worked as whips or in the official proceedings operation; they were concentrated in the government affairs operation, working directly with elected officials.
"Our job was to make sure the members [of Congress] get in; we have our people stationed at the doors to make sure they get right in," said Tim Keating, the top lobbyist for Honeywell Corp., who ran the Democrats' government affairs program. "We allowed them to move freely through the halls and to get in even when the fire marshals shut down the hall."
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.