Correction: An earlier version of this feature incorrectly listed lobbyist Marcus Mason’s age as 42. He is 41. This version has been corrected.
Lobbying is a business of relationships. Maintaining relationships in this business is key. It is the currency of the realm. The one thi ng about the Congress is, it’s made up of 535 people who come from distinctly different backgrounds. I had the unique experience of living a good portion of my life in Compton, California, and then I [lived] in a place called Palos Verdes. The two neighborhoods are night and day. The Palos Verdes peninsula has four of the wealthiest communities in the country, whereas the city of Compton was considered the murder capital of the world. Now imagine someone who’s lived between those two worlds. I can pretty much talk to anybody. I can talk to a prince, I can talk to a pauper, because I’ve known both.
I think the most challenging part of what I do now is combating the false perceptions that lobbyists should be in that sunken ship at the bottom of the ocean, right next to the lawyers. People make accusations about influence because they truly don’t understand the nature of the system. They like to ascribe nefarious motives to campaign contributions and political fundraisers. But you know what? That’s the system that we have, that’s the system that we work in, and there are laws and reporting requirements around it.
There was a member of Congress who was recently elected, and I guess in her previous life she had been a public interest lobbyist. We were talking one day, and she said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a lobbyist; I have a firm downtown.” And she said, “What issues do you lobby for?” I said, “I work for a number of corporations.” And she said, “Oh, you’re one of those lobbyists.” Corporate America isn’t this big evil entity, and the lobbyists that advocate for these companies are actually advocating for American employers.
I’m not going to say that there aren’t some folks out there who [tried] to get away with acts that were criminal. When those things happen, there is outrage and rightfully so, and people will mistakenly paint all lobbyists with a broad brush. But you can’t [compare] a lobbyist who takes money from an Indian tribe to a lobbyist that is out working on behalf of inner-city education. You can’t do that.
My former boss at Amtrak always worked to instill the ethics of lobbying: Tell them the story; tell them the story right and truthfully. I’ve always been able to watch other lobbyists from afar. I watched their successes, and I also watched their failures. You learn more from failures; if you win enough, it becomes automatic. It becomes muscle memory. But if you have a stumble every now and then, it teaches you a thing or two and actually helps you shore up your game.