Sitting at the end of a row of seven candidates at a debate Wednesday, Rick Kessler talked about his 20-year legislative career and his pro bono work on pipeline safety. He talked about being an active member of the community, and about why he wants to be elected to Maryland’s House of Delegates.
One thing he didn’t mention: Kessler is a lobbyist, with big-time clients, including Chevron and Comcast.
The crowd of 50 or so probably wouldn’t have been surprised. As Kessler said later, his district, on the edge of Washington, is a special one. “A lot of us work in government, have worked in government, lobby government as a nonprofit or for-profit.”
But even beyond the Maryland suburbs, influence industry pros are running for office. And, despite the low marks the public gives the lobbying trade, they’re sometimes winning.
There was David Jolly, the former lobbyist, who won the March special election to succeed his old boss, the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), who died in October. And Debbie Dingell, a longtime General Motors executive who was once a lobbyist for the company, seems set to take the seat that her husband, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), has held since 1955.
Ed Gillespie, the well-known Republican strategist and a former K Streeter, is trying to unseat Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). It didn’t take long for Gillespie to face billboards dubbing him “Enron Ed,” a reference to one of his old clients, the failed energy giant.
“I’m not offended by people’s skepticism,” Gillespie told The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty. “I understand it, and I think they appreciate that. I’m not defensive about it at all, and the more we talk and the more they hear what my own views are, there’s a growing comfort level.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said lobbyists shouldn’t be disqualified from running for public office. But that kind of experience “could be hard to explain, depending on who your clients were and what you did for them.”
For Dingell, for example, it’s not likely to be a problem. As Sloan notes, GM is a major employer in Michigan, and most voters aren’t likely to frown on her work for the company.
Usually, though, “that you were helping big companies get tax breaks or government contracts is not a particularly compelling narrative,” Sloan said. “Every candidate has negatives they’re going to have to overcome, and that’s a pretty big one.”
But Haley Barbour, who helped found what is now BGR Group, a lobbying powerhouse, and went on to serve two terms as the Republican governor of Mississippi, says his K Street experience turned out to be helpful during his 2003 campaign against Democrat Ronnie Musgrove.
“My opponent spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on negative ads attacking me for being a lobbyist insider,” he told Tumulty. Barbour countered with ads focusing on what he had delivered, including federal funding for hospitals and other interests in Mississippi.
Of course, lobbyists are sometimes losers, too. Jim Slattery, a Kansas Democrat, spent six terms in the House, and after an unsuccessful run for governor, became a lobbyist at Wiley Rein — a fact his critics used against him in his failed 2008 attempt to defeat Sen. Pat Roberts (R).
“This isn’t Kansas,” Kessler said of his Maryland district.
Indeed, the candidates on stage last week also included Natali Fani-Gonzalez, who boasted of her years as a lobbyist in the state capital working on immigrants’ rights, and Emily Shetty, a former Hill aide who now is a lobbyist for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. (The seven are competing for the heavily Democratic district’s three seats in the House of Delegates, with the winners of the June 24 Democratic primary expected to win November’s general election.)
Nonetheless, Kessler, with a corporate client list, is treading carefully. A registered lobbyist since 2007, his bio at Levick notes that he was named by The Hill as one of its “Top Lobbyists” for the past four years. (Lanny Davis, who served as special counsel to former president Bill Clinton, is executive vice president at the strategic communications firm.)
But on the “Who I am and Where I Come From” page of Kessler’s campaign Web site, the focus is squarely on the nearly 20 years he spent on Capitol Hill, where he went from being a driver for Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), to chief of staff for Dingell, with a few stops in between.
Kessler said he’s not avoiding his lobbyist life.
“I see lobbying, at least the way I do it, as an extension of what I did on the Hill,” he said.
“You tell members and staff your side of the story, but you also talk about the hurdles and potential traps, letting them make their own decision,” Kessler said. “It’s because you are providing that kind of trusted counsel — that’s why they want you.”
And did he always know he wanted to run for office?
“Some people want to be baseball stars. Some people want to be rock stars,” he said. “Everybody on the Hill thinks, ‘maybe I could run at some point.’”