While some see them as a necessary evil, lobbyists remain in demand — bucking the recession, boosting Tallahassee’s economy and helping shape the laws of our state.
The DealmakersWhile some see them as a necessary evil, lobbyists remain in demand — bucking the recession, boosting Tallahassee’s economy and helping shape the laws of our stateBy John Kennedy
Nothing is recession-proof these days. But one of Tallahassee’s most enduring industries — lobbying — seems to be showing few signs of being slammed hard by the global economic slump.
“Not one of my clients has scaled back,” said Guy Spearman, a Brevard County-based lobbyist, who has worked the state Capitol since the early 1970s.
“When times are good, industries are looking to pick up a piece of state spending. But when times turn bad, they hang in. They’re afraid legislators might hurt them when cutting programs or begin looking at them for tax increases.”
Spearman, who’s represented tobacco firms, beer companies, pari-mutuel facilities and local governments through a handful of earlier recessions, then turned downright Keynesian.
“Lobbying really does seem somewhat immune to hard times,” he concluded. >>
Lobbying state lawmakers is roughly a $200 million-a-year business, according to compensation reports filed with the Legislature under a 2005 law, with the top firms pulling in millions of dollars in fees each year.
Lobbyists outnumber Florida’s 160 legislators by 12-to-1, and proof of the industry’s scope can be seen any day the Legislature is in session just by walking across the Capitol’s 4th floor Rotunda.
Some city and county governments — and even a few industries — have trimmed the ranks of their lobbying corps. But the marble-lined mosh pit separating the House and Senate chambers, sometimes referred to as “Gucci Gulch,” is usually mobbed with those representing utility companies, health care firms, horse tracks and cigarette makers.
Recession? Not really here.
An Economic Boon
“With the Legislature in Tallahassee, it’s like having a home football game once a week,” said Mark Bonn, a Florida State University business professor who has studied the financial impact of lobbying for the Leon County Tourist Development Council.
“When the session’s on, we’re talking about between $5 million and $10 million a week coming into the local economy,” he said.
But that’s not the only cash flowing when lobbyists and lawmakers are involved.
Leading lobbying firms also serve as a prime source of campaign cash for legislators and Florida’s top office holders.
“It’s the process,” said Ron Book, a Miami lobbyist who has worked the Capitol since 1982. Book took in about $5.2 million in fees last year, and has contributed $97,000 to candidates and committees over the past two years.
“You remember the people who helped you, and you help the people who you think are going to be good legislators,” Book said, in explaining the financial balancing act.
The two highest-earning lobbyist firms, Southern Strategy Group and Smith & Ballard — both based in Tallahassee — took in $9.5 million and $8 million, respectively. Southern Strategy’s lobbyist lineup includes several with close ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush, while Brian Ballard helped raise millions of dollars for Gov. Charlie Crist and for Republican presidential nominee John McCain last fall.
Both firms give freely and fund-raise for lawmakers.
“It’s no secret; it’s a necessary evil,” said John Thrasher, a former House speaker and partner with Southern Strategy, whose clients include such Northwest Florida interests as First American Title Insurance Co., Mosaic Fertilizer and Sacred Heart Health System.
Thrasher, who state records show gave $12,500 personally to candidates last fall, defended the contributions: “Florida is a big state, and to get your message out, it’s costly.”
Ballard, who raised more than $25 million for McCain in Florida last fall, said fund-raising has become more than just a sidelight for lobbyists. It’s now as much a part of the job as a Blackberry and a persuasive list of talking points.
“It’s not a lot of fun,” concedes Ballard, who began his political career as a travel aide to former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in the mid-1980s. “But it’s virtually non-stop. You’re always out looking for new blood; those people willing to give.”
Spearman sprinkled $156,460 among candidates and political parties for last fall’s campaigns, including $73,000 to the ruling Florida Republican Party and $26,000 to the state’s Democratic Party.
“When you give, you do expect to get your phone calls returned,” said Spearman, who takes in about $2 million a year in fees.
The Confluence of Money and Influence
The bulk of Florida’s registered lobbyists don’t draw dizzying salaries, with most representing modest-sized corporate interests, public agencies, social service providers, unions, trade associations and business alliances.
But those with blue-chip clients are expected to be strong political players.
House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston readily acknowledges that when he was looking to elect candidates last fall, he turned to the state’s lobbying corps for help.
“You know, when they asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he said, ‘That’s where the money is,’” Sands said, reminiscing about a legendary 20th-century holdup man. “Well, that’s why I turned to the lobbying corps. That’s where the money is.”
Fundraising is barred by both the House and Senate during sessions. But the increasingly crowded intersection of public policy, lobbyists’ fees and campaign cash still troubles plenty of those at the Capitol.
“Looking at the magnitude of the money that comes into the process in Florida, I really question whether public policy decisions are being made in the public interest or in the interests of those who give,” said Ben Wilcox, director of the Florida chapter of Common Cause, the national organization that has long pushed for stricter limits on campaign spending.
Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a candidate for U.S. Senate, knows well the old saying that “money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
“But hopefully, people vote their passions and their beliefs,” Gelber said. “If a legislator believes in an unregulated insurance market, they’re likely to get a lot of cash from the insurance industry. But you want to think that those policy positions don’t develop because it helps draw campaign money.”
Playing a Central Role
With lawmakers slashing billions of dollars from a state budget hammered by the recession, lobbyists this spring are playing more defense than offense.
“A lot of taxes have been imposed on the business community when the state was in similar financial straits,” said Rheb Harbison, senior government consultant and lobbyist for the Carlton Fields law firm. “Lots of our business clients are mindfully observant and have a long memory.”
And while they’ve been threatened with extinction before, legislative “turkeys” — those hometown projects sought by lawmakers and the lobbyists they’re close to — could, for once, actually disappear this spring, washed away by the state’s tide of red ink.
“The people who come to see me understand the predicament we’re in,” said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, chairman of the House Full Appropriations Council on Education and Economic Development. “If you’re a lobbyist, you come in trying to protect whatever service, program or project you’re involved in.
“But I haven’t had anyone asking for more. Even the line ‘Hey, we’re different’ is out the window this year. That doesn’t work anymore.”
Although some things change in a Legislature dominated by budget-cutting, lawmakers say certain qualities of the best lobbyists endure.
“I like the lobbyist who can synthesize the issue,” Rivera said. “Give me one page — tell me what I need to know. And ‘what is the problem’ and ‘what is your solution.’ ”
Sands, too, said lobbyists play a central role in lawmaking.
“With the advent of term limits, lobbyists are really an indispensable part of this process,” Sands said. “Simply because they know their issue. Once a person is elected and they come to Tallahassee, they’re supposed to be an expert on the Everglades, property taxes, health care issues, education issues, work force issues. It’s just not realistic.
“So we have to depend on staff to tutor us,” he said. “But we also have to depend on the lobbying corps.”
Sands also said he has no problem with lobbyists making money — even lots of it.
“You know, a lobbyist at the end of the day is a businessman, or -woman,” Sands said. “And the fact that they make a profit on the goods and services they sell is called free enterprise. And I’m all in favor of that.”
Changes in Method
Lobbying in Tallahassee used to have more of a down-home feel, Capitol veterans say.
“It’s gotten more competitive over the years,” said Doug Bruce, a lobbyist since 1979 who now counts city and county governments, a utility and building material companies among his clients. “It seems like when I started there were just a few lobbyists working issues. Term limits have also made it more difficult to establish longtime relationships with legislators. It’s amazing how quickly eight years goes by.”
Another contrast can be found in where lawmakers and lobbyists mingle. If the crowds flocking to the city’s bars and restaurants during legislative sessions give the Capitol area a tone of life in the fast lane, much of the lobbying a generation ago used to take place on a dirt road at the edge of town.
In a cluster of trailers on Gum Road, the Florida Manufactured Housing Association used to charm lawmakers with steaks grilled on an open fire, salad, baked potatoes, an endless supply of booze — and even a place to sleep it off.
The mobile home industry was among the capital’s biggest spenders then. And much of the money was devoted to the trailers — where earlier news accounts show that as many as 1,000 dinners were served during the two-month legislative session. That averaged six free meals for every lawmaker in Tallahassee.
During the peak party years at the trailers — 1961 to 1978 — more than 350,000 new mobile homes rolled onto Florida lots and the way was paved for another 350,000 in the 1980s. Mobile homes became a central part of Florida’s housing inventory, with most built and installed with far less government scrutiny than other homes.
“We used to be out west on Tennessee Street before we moved to Gum Road,” said Jack Skelding, who lobbied for the industry from 1972 to 2001. “We never turned anyone away. But the legislators got out of hand, bringing staff, out-of-towners — everybody just to get a free meal and drinks.”
The heyday of the trailers eventually faded away in the early 1980s.
“We realized that we were spending a lot of money that could probably instead put into campaign contributions,” Skelding said. “So that’s what we did. And we think they go a lot further than steaks.”
The days of free food also are gone.
In 2005, the Legislature required contracted lobbyists to report their fees, although organizations that employ in-house lobbyists do not have to meet the same disclosure requirements. The measure also bars lobbyists from providing gifts and food to legislators.
The law was unsuccessfully challenged in the Florida Supreme Court by the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists. Leaders of the organization say lobbyists mostly welcome the meal ban — but contend the disclosure requirement violates the state’s separation of powers doctrine.
“We’re all adjusting to the new law,” said Carl Adams, president of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists. “But that still doesn’t mean that it’s right.”
The meal ban hasn’t exactly turned Tallahassee into a ghost town. But it has affected restaurants, bars, florists and other businesses that used to profit from the expense account trade.
Bonn, the FSU professor, has estimated that because of the gift ban, Tallahassee and the surrounding county lost more than
$4.1 million in lobbyist spending during the 2007 March and April legislative session.
“That’s a significant amount of money lost from the local economy,” Bonn said.
The gift ban and disclosure law was approved during a rocky time for both Tallahassee and Washington. Earlier in 2005, four state legislators had traveled to Canada on a $48,000 golf and sightseeing junket paid for by a gambling company. The nation’s capital also was embroiled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
As in most capitals, lobbyists and legislators in Tallahassee have had a long, interlocking history — including periodic flare-ups.
Florida’s biggest tax increase, the 1987 services tax, was written over pizza and beer during a closed-door huddle with legislators gathered at a lobbyist’s Tallahassee townhouse. And in 1991, two dozen legislators pleaded no contest to criminal misdemeanor charges for failing to report costly trips and gifts provided by lobbyists.
The New Gentry
Through the years, lobbyists also have changed the profile of downtown Tallahassee.
Many of the city’s historic houses in the blocks surrounding the Capitol have been gobbled up over the past 25 years by lobbying and law firms. These are the city’s new gentry, who have taken over the homes where Tallahassee’s oldest families used to dwell.
In some cases, the acquisition has spared the place from a wrecking ball.
“A lot of lobbyist offices and law firms have purchased these old houses to get office space and parking,” said Don Pickett, a Tallahassee real estate broker with Coldwell Banker, Hartung & Noblin Inc.
“Plus, they have the cash to refurbish them,” he said. “If a family bought one of these houses, they wouldn’t have the money to fix them up.”
Lobbyists now are targets for the city’s condominium boom. A half-dozen new towers, which include units ranging from under $200,000 for studio apartments to million-dollar penthouses, are transforming Tallahassee’s skyline, despite a cool real estate market.
“We really looked to market them to lobbyists, both in-town and out-of-town,” Pickett said. “Sales have been good. Sure, it’s a tough market. But lobbyists are here to stay.”
Lobbying on a shoestring
When Karen Woodall shows up in a legislator’s office, she isn’t representing some powerful industry that easily opens doors at the Capitol.
Instead, the 50-year-old Woodall is there on behalf of Florida’s underclass. Migrant workers, the uninsured, Florida’s vast population of working poor. That’s who Woodall goes to bat for at the Capitol.
“I’m very stubborn — and that keeps me going,” said Woodall, who has lobbied in Tallahassee for 28 years. “I do my own Xeroxing, write my own talking points, and lick labels on the envelopes I mail. I do have a cell phone, but a BlackBerry? No way. And I work out of my house.”
If million-dollar lobbying giants such as Southern Strategy Group sit heavily on one end of the Capitol’s influence scale, Woodall is the featherweight at the opposite extreme. Working for low-budget — sometimes, no-budget — clients, Woodall’s annual income is in the $40,000 to $55,000 range.
Even as she works Capitol hallways alongside fellow lobbyists pulling in 10 times that amount, Woodall said she is committed to advancing “my vision of what government should be.”
“Government must not abandon those people who — while frequently out of its sight — still depend on it for help,” Woodall said.
“I enjoy lobbying,” she added. “But I feel my most satisfying role is as an organizer. When I bring farmworkers and their children to the Capitol to testify before committees, or injured workers to talk about workers’ compensation, I’m teaching people how to represent themselves before the Legislature. It’s about helping people have a voice.”
With the recession deepening and lawmakers steadily slashing the state budget this spring on top of two years of cuts, Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said Woodall has a “monumental task.”
“To some legislators, she probably doesn’t get much access,” Gelber said. “But for those who wonder what a policy or budget cut does to children, working families, or those in need of health care, she can provide the answers.”
Woodall began working for what she calls poverty-based nonprofits as a Florida State University student majoring in social work. She was an intern with lobbyist Budd Bell, who for decades was the Capitol’s pre-eminent advocate for low-income Floridians. Woodall effectively succeeded her now-retired mentor.
Woodall lives just a few blocks from the Capitol, in a home that occasionally doubles as a crash pad for the out-of-town clients she represents.
“I pay my bills, but I’ve had some tight years,” Woodall conceded. “A lot of times other industry lobbyists will tell me, ‘I really envy you, because you work on stuff you really believe in.’ I tell them, ‘Hey, quit and come join me. I need the help.’”
— John Kennedy
After 37 years as a state Capitol lobbyist, Carl Adams has a few stories to tell. He not only knows where the proverbial bodies are buried, the 73-year-old Adams probably witnessed the interment.
But as president of the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists, Adams also knows there are a few things businesses should look for when shopping for a lobbyist.
“You’ve got to remember, we’re really hired to provide information,” said Adams, who retired in August 2008 after decades representing local governments, jai-alai frontons and a host of other industries. “But how lobbyists do that — and how successful they are — varies widely.”
According to Adams, a good lobbyist:
- Knows the process: “You’ve got to know the rules of both houses,” Adams said. “The last thing you want is to think you can amend a bill when it comes over from another chamber on the last day of session and then find out you can’t.”
- Has access: “Access is still the most important thing,” Adams said. “You want a lobbyist who has a good rapport with at least certain members. Term limits are making that tougher. But having a connection or being around for a while usually helps you get in the door.”
- Looks good: “You don’t have to be handsome or beautiful,” Adams said. “But I think a business wants its lobbyist to look presentable, not sleazy or sloppy. You have to look reliable.”
- Distributes campaign cash: “Even if you don’t give, if your lobbyist is associated with other industries that contribute heavily to campaigns, that can help you,” Adams said.
- Is a good fit: “If you’re a white-hat organization — a children’s group, school or community health-care organization — you probably want to avoid hiring a lobbyist who’s known best for representing black-hat industries,” Adams said. — John Kennedy