Special-interest access abounds in campaign

June 10, 2008 5:25:36 PM PDT
Barack Obama and John McCain are billing themselves as distant from special interests. It doesn't take a very deep look into their White House bids to see that's false advertising.

Presidential races tap into the same political circles that keep lobbyists employed and the revolving door spinning. Obama and McCain have a long way to go to free themselves of insiders and special interests.

Roughly one-third of 93 "Reagan alumni" who endorsed McCain have been or are registered to lobby, though McCain never said so. The Florida fundraising team for McCain and the Republican National Committee, announced last week, includes at least two Florida lobbyists: Fred Karlinsky is Florida counsel to the Property Casualty Insurers Association, which lobbies in Washington on consumer issues, disaster planning and insurance; the other, Thomas Panza, served on Florida business regulation and health care study commissions.

Obama's team in Nevada, put together last summer to help him with the state's January caucuses, included at least two Nevada lobbyists: one that represented Barrick Gold of North America, a mining company that also lobbies in Washington, and another whose clients included U.S. Airways, Corrections Corp. of America and consulting company Accenture, which lobby in Washington.

McCain's advisory committee on legal issues, announced last month, included at least nine lobbyists, but McCain didn't identify them as such. Instead, his campaign listed them with their former government positions. In addition, the committee has members with lobbying ties, included at least five partners in Washington law and lobby firms who weren't personally registered to lobby and three former lobbyists.

Obama accepted an endorsement from former Sen. Don Riegle of Michigan but never mentioned Riegle also is a Washington lobbyist whose clients include London-based metals merchant Norimet Ltd. and Geneva-based liquor distributor SPI Group SA.

McCain and Obama have each taken new steps to hold lobbyists ? at least those in Washington ? at arm's length. But such moves are incomplete, at best, for putting real distance between their campaigns and special interests. Many operate below the public's radar: Unless the advisers are paid staff or donors, the candidates are not required to identify them or their lobbyist connections.

Obama and the DNC announced Thursday the party will follow Obama's policy of turning away donations from Washington lobbyists.

Last month, McCain adopted a conflict-of-interest policy that drove some Washington lobbyists from his campaign. They included former Texas Rep. Tom Loeffler, a McCain fundraiser and adviser. Those on the campaign payroll have had to sever their lobbying ties; McCain adviser Charlie Black recently retired from the prominent Washington lobbying firm he helped found. Volunteers must tell the campaign if they are lobbyists and cannot take part in campaign policymaking on subjects on which they lobby; if McCain wins, those who join his administration must promise never to lobby it. The policy doesn't mention people whose companies or groups hire lobbyists.

To consort only with outsiders, McCain and Obama would have to accept help only from people who never worked in politics, wanted anything from government or worked for anyone who has.

They would have to shun leaders of their own parties. The Democratic and Republican national committees include well-known Washington lobbyists among their top officials.

DNC vice chairwoman Lottie Shackelford, a former Little Rock, Ark., mayor, is a lobbyist whose clients include Hyundai Motor Co., which is pressing on free trade issues with Korea that Obama opposes. She also has worked for the Sallie Mae student loan provider, State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and Allstate Insurance Co. Her firm boasts on its Web site of her "long-term relationship with American policymakers."

The lobbying clients of RNC vice chairman Frank Donatelli include the National Basketball Association, for whom he lobbied this year on steroids legislation, a tougher ban on Internet gambling, and immigration legislation that would guarantee work visas for minor-league players. Donatelli, executive vice president and federal public affairs director for McGuireWoods Consulting, worked for President Reagan and aided President Bush's 2000 Florida recount effort.

Other avenues for access abound. The well-connected take lead roles in organizing the upcoming nominating conventions. They raise money for the party and for candidates up and down the ticket, and for costly Inauguration Day galas in Washington. They take time off from their jobs to help get out the vote in battleground states. And they serve as advisers, paid or volunteer, to candidates who might invite them to advise the incoming administration.

McCain announced in January an ex-aide to presidential brother and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to help run "Lawyers for McCain" in Florida. Hayden Dempsey is a lobbyist with Greenberg Traurig, whose former star lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, was investigated by McCain when he was chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Dempsey's state client list includes businesses that also lobby in Washington: the Amerigroup health-care company, MAXIMUS information technology firm and UnitedHealth Group insurance company.

Technology experts who endorsed Obama include Andrew McLaughlin, who lobbied Congress and the Bush administration on trade issues for Google Inc. last year with McCain donor and former McCain Senate chief counsel Pablo Chavez; and Ed Zander, chief executive of Motorola, an Illinois-based communications company that lobbies in Washington.

Lobbyists have made campaign appearances for McCain. They include former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, chief executive of the American Council of Life Insurers and co-chairman of "Catholics for McCain." Another is former Navy Secretary William Ball, a Washington lobbyist whose client list includes Southwest Airlines, facing a record $10.2 million fine and congressional scrutiny over safety issues.

At least 17 lobbyists are among McCain's top fundraisers, including Jack Oliver III, a former national GOP official whose Washington lobbying list includes the Financial Services Forum, a group of banks and investment firms; and corporate giants Shell Oil Co., Verizon Communications Inc. and Union Pacific Corp. railroad.

Obama's biggest fundraisers include Charles Adams Jr., a partner in Hogan & Hartson, a law and lobbying firm active in Washington, and Michael Froman, who worked at the White House, Treasury Department and National Security Council and now works as an executive at Citigroup, which spent $8 million lobbying in Washington last year.

McCain's national campaign co-chairs include John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems Inc., a technology company that spent $1.4 million last year lobbying in Washington on immigration, digital television, personal data privacy and security, patent legislation and trade issues. Another is former Homeland Security secretary and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who now runs a Washington consulting firm and sits on the boards of several high-tech companies, some of them federal contractors.

The Democratic presidential race could be considered a dream come true for some lobbyists.

Those lucky enough to rank as Democratic "superdelegates" free to back the candidate of their choice at the party's nominating convention found the tables turned: Two senators, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, needed their votes for a change, and for weeks courted superdelegates aggressively.

Superdelegates backing Obama include Joyce Brayboy of North Carolina, a Washington lobbyist and former congressional chief of staff whose clients include the American Bankers Association, Moneygram International money-transfer service and Recording Industry Association of America.

Obama superdelegate Moses Mercado of Texas, a former aide to then-Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., has been a lobbyist at the same Washington firm as Wayne Berman, who raised money for McCain. Mercado's client list at Ogilvy Government Relations includes the American Chemistry Council trade group; the American Petroleum Institute and Chevron, both with big stakes in energy policy; and the American Trucking Associations, whose priorities include highway funding and labor rules.

Shackelford, who lobbied Congress and the Bush administration on behalf of Hyundai, also lobbied for Lyondell Chemical Co. over discontinuing use of the gasoline additive MTBE, which helps prevent engines from knocking. MTBE's leading alternative is ethanol, which Obama supports. She is with the lobby firm Global USA, whose chairman, Stanton Anderson, lobbies for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform and is among Reagan alumni who endorsed McCain.

Another superdelegate, Robert Strauss of Texas, a former ambassador and Democratic National Committee chairman, founded the firm that became international law and lobbying giant Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. Its clients include the governments of Panama and South Korea, who want trade agreements with the United States that Obama opposes. Akin Gump also lobbied for Chinese oil company CNOOC, reaching out to McCain's staff and others on Capitol Hill as CNOOC unsuccessfully tried to win backing for its offer to acquire Unocal.

Lobbying interests and candidates can help each other without breaking the law. Openly promising goodies such as federal contracts, policy decisions or political appointments in exchange for campaign money could amount to a felony, but there are plenty of benefits to be had without illegal quid pro quos.

Candidates receive money and support, and lobbyists gain political experience and the access they need. For state-level lobbyists, a week with the state's convention delegation can mean valuable time with the governor and legislative leaders. And ties to a presidential nominee and other powerful politicians can be their own reward as lobbyists, trade associations and unions work to keep and attract clients or members.

Hunter Johnston, a Washington lobbyist who raised money for Sen. John Kerry's 2004 Democratic presidential campaign, said it's risky for candidates to say lobbyists do not and cannot work in their campaigns or future administrations.

"You're excluding a large number of very competent people," Johnston said. "If they do make a statement, then it's hard to live up to such a statement, and if you live up to such a statement, I don't think it's in their interests."