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The Silent Majority

Rating the Real Power Players in Oregon Politics: The Lobbyists

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LOBBYISTS DON'T VOTE ON LAWS. They (usually) don't write them. They don't even have to pitch them, door by door, to pissed off voters during election season.

So what, then, does a lobbyist do? With apologies to our 90 officially elected state senators and representatives, let's put it this way: Lobbyists pretty much decide which ideas will become state law, and which will wither and die.

But while it's the legislators who find themselves under the microscope, most Oregonians have no idea how lobbyists work or who they are. That's why—just like in 2009—we distributed surveys to every legislative office in the capitol building, asking staffers and legislators to rank influential lobbyists on a scale of one to seven on their integrity, public interest, and effectiveness (plus pencil in anonymous scuttlebutt). Picking out those with the best and worst scores from the 31 surveys we got back—and the most interesting combinations of the two—we chose seven to highlight.

KNOWLEDGE BROKERS

"I think everyone believes that lobbyists are evil hit men who come in and dangle cash in front of legislators, and that's absolutely not true," says Representative Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas.

The nonprofits, business groups, unions, and corporations employing Salem's 891 lobbyists do provide money to legislators during the election cycle, but most of a lobbyist's day-to-day job revolves around information. They get meetings with lawmakers, like committee chairs, and provide them research on bills they either want snuffed out or resurrected. They testify at public hearings. They can rally and trade votes behind the scenes. Or, if they're really sly, they can lead whisper campaigns or get their issue stuffed into a bill that's sure to pass.

Some are passionate fighters, some are bloodless mercenaries who know how to work the system, and some are downright likeable. "The medical marijuana lobbyists are the most fun ever," says Sheehan. "Those guys are a blast."

 "You've got basically two currencies in politics: money and people," says Senator Chip Shields, D-Portland. "You can win with people power, it just takes a lot more effort and time."

The lobbyists who are most successful over the long term, say legislators, are the ones whom the politicians can rely on for accurate information, even if it doesn't help their cause.

"The people who are straightforward, those folks are the pros," says Representative Lew Frederick, D-Portland.

Unlike lobbyists, our legislators aren't pros: They work other jobs during the 18 months out of every two years they're not in the capital, but then every session they have to make the call on everything from invasive species to transportation to intensely wonky retirement benefits schemes.  

"I have one and a half staff to follow 3,000 bills," says Shields. "It's institutionally designed to make you rely on the lobbyists."

TO KILL A BILL

This session has been stranger than most. There's a new governor, John Kitzhaber, who isn't afraid to brawl with lawmakers. A Republican resurgence last fall led to a 30-30 split in the House, and a bizarre power-sharing pact. Plus, a budget crisis has shut state coffers.

Overall, groups spent $8.5 million on lobbying in the first three months of this year, compared to $8.4 million spent in the first three months of the last session. Lobbying has been much different this session, though: There are effectively twice as many people in the House who can summarily snuff bills than in previous years, because each committee is chaired by a Republican and Democrat and both have to agree (egads) on moving bills forward.

"It's easier to kill bills in this building than it is to move bills proactively," said Kristen Leonard, a lobbyist for nearly a dozen mostly progressive groups.

But it's made honest politics more difficult.

"This session, compared to others, everyone was more open that there were lots of trades going on," said one observer. "There was a lot more deal making going on, and it was much more difficult. Things can get caught up in unrelated issues really easily when everyone is horse trading."

MONEY, MONEY, MONEY

Thanks to a scandal surrounding what's known as the "Lobbyist Luau" that broke in 2007, strict expense reporting laws now keep lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators. But that doesn't mean money doesn't buy influence.

First of all, big spenders can afford to hire more lobbyists. For example, South Carolina-based plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly jumped into Oregon politics this session by hiring four anti-bag-ban lobbyists at a cost of $52,000.

Secondly, legislators rely on campaign contributions from lobby groups to get reelected.

"My first session, every night was some lobby group giving people big dinners, wining and dining. And we've reined that in," Senator Shields says. "These days you see lobbyists doing the same thing, but with campaign contributions."

Representative Ben Cannon, D-Portland, is the only legislator who swears off money from political action groups during campaigns.

"Where the public interest is really threatened is in the connection between campaign funding and policy outcomes. Lobbyists play a large role on the campaign side, on behalf of their clients and sometimes personally," says Cannon.

Even lobbyists, especially those without large corporate budgets to throw around, acknowledge the opportunities cash creates.

"The little guy who gives away basketball seats in the 300s nosebleed section doesn't get as much political clout as the guy who can give away the courtside seats," says Arthur Towers, a lobbyist for Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

The parade of lobbyists is often at its most intense in the opening months of the session, and then again at the end.

"There's a certain core group of professional lobbyists who are always waiting in the wings to say hi," says Representative Frederick. "It's interesting for me to see that it's a constant relationship-driven enterprise."


THE LOBBYISTS!


JIM AND MATT MARKEE: THE PIT BULLS

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Scores: Integrity 3.2; Public Interest 3

Effectiveness 5.3

Clients: 22, including the American Chemistry Council, Amalgamated Transit Union (TriMet workers), Oregon Mortgage Lenders Association, H&R Block, General Motors


If the Markees sink their teeth into an issue their clients don't like, its chances of survival are about as slim as a bloody steak's. One capitol staffer taking our survey described this father/son duo as "dogged." "They're like pit bulls," another wrote. "Once they get hold of your bills, they don't let go."

A third dispensed with the imagery altogether: "You can bet they wield influence ($$), but their social skills and ethical standards are severely lacking."

The Markees live in the same rare Salem air occupied by noted tobacco/corporate lobbyist Mark Nelson and another father/son duo, Tom and Dave Barrows. They are powerful because they have well-heeled clients who can afford to shell out big bucks for full-throated attacks. But they also know their turf: Jim Markee has been running his own lobbying firm in Salem since 1974. And his son, Matt, was the youngest person ever elected president of Oregon's lobbying association.  

Take, for example, the plastic bag ban. The statewide ban on plastic checkout bags at grocery stores came into the session with strong support from both grassroots environmentalists and big grocery businesses. But the anti-ban American Chemistry Council—a client of the Markees—threw $17,500 into lobbying in the first three months of this session and the bill stalled out in committee.

The pair also worked furiously on behalf of big mortgage lenders on a foreclosure law that went all the way to federal court. In late May, an Oregon federal judge issued a sharply critical ruling on a state law allowing lenders to skip processing foreclosures in courts and instead just log them in an electronic database, saying the lack of openness led to hundreds of unfair foreclosures.

Acting fast, the Markees pushed for slapping an amendment onto an affordable housing bill that would have retroactively freed the big banks from having to follow state recording law. The amendment ultimately died, but it was a last minute ploy that almost worked.

"If you look at who responded to your questionnaire, I would expect that more are from the Portland area and more from the liberal side of their views of the world," Jim Markee said, explaining the gap in his and his son's scores. "Our clients are not from that part of the world."

PAUL ROMAIN: THE HIRED HAND

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Scores: Integrity 2.8; Public Interest 1.9; Effectiveness 5.5

Clients: 7, including National Tobacco Company, Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors Association, Oregon Pawnbrokers Association, Oregon Petroleum Association

Romain made our list two years ago—noted for being highly successful, but also for rubbing people the wrong way as he pushes his issues. He's back again—scoring convincingly near the top on effectiveness, but ranking at the absolute bottom in public interest and integrity.

Romain's power persists even after what could have been a crippling ethics scandal four years ago. (He was the one caught treating lawmakers to junkets to Maui. Yes, Maui. And he had to apologize.) That's partly a reflection of the industries he represents and the clout—and cash—they collectively wield. Romain's political action committee spent tens of thousands on political races last year alone.

But it's also because he's been haunting the capitol building for two decades and probably knows where a few bodies are buried. As one survey respondent put it: He's a "bastard, but still effective."

Romain didn't respond to a request for comment on this session's survey. But others, over the years, have been more charitable in describing his prowess.

"He knows where to put the pressure," former Governor Barbara Roberts said of Romain in a 2002 Oregonian profile. "He knows the system inside and out, every member, every nuance, every committee, every committee structure... He's very good at it, and he's had a lot of practice."

Representative Cannon thinks Romain's low public interest score is a little unfair. "The lobbyists work for who pays them. And unlike legislators, who should be held accountable for what serves the public interest, lobbyists should be held accountable for whether or not they serve their clients," says Cannon.

He points out that Romain, on behalf of the beverage lobby, pushed hard for a progressive rewrite of the bottle bill, expanding the number of recyclable items allowed. Two years ago, the two sparred over a bottle bill revamp and Romain's killing of a beer tax.

"If his interests align with the public interest, then he fights for it. You can see that with the bottle bill."

JONATHAN MANTON: THE RISING STAR

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Scores: Integrity 6; Public Interest 6; Effectiveness 5.1

Clients: 3, Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Naturist Action Committee, Willamette Pedestrian Coalition

Everybody, apparently, loves Jonathan Manton. His scores pretty much speak to that. But to really see what kind of impression he's made, check out the comments we got on our survey:    

One respondent said he had a "strong" first lobbying session, never mind that he actually spent last session lobbying for the relatively low-wattage Central Oregon Landwatch. Another hailed his friendliness and said that "with seasoning, he'll be a story." Yet another gushed that he was "dreamy... and represents bikes."

Manton, only 36, and a former legislative staffer and campaign manager for Senator Floyd Prozanski, said the comments were "humbling" and that they validate his approach to the work: building relationships instead of throwing around campaign cash and gifts.

But Manton—it must be noted—remains a rookie. His high marks might also be because he's yet to wade into any major battles or pick any big fights. His most public accomplishment this session was a new bill that clarifies what it means to cross a crosswalk, making it easier for pedestrians to claim the right of way—hardly controversial. But sources say he also helped kill a bill that would have made it more difficult to challenge development projects.

Manton said the lobbying game distills what he felt was the best thing about working in a legislative office.

"I always liked the advocacy a lot more than anything else," he said. "I liked trying to support people with good ideas and good legislation that helps."   

ANDREA MEYER: THE EVANGELIST

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Scores: Integrity 5.3; Public Interest 5.2; Effectiveness 3.1

Clients: 1, American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon

Meyer works tirelessly for the ACLU of Oregon—the only client she represents—steering the nonprofit's lobbying efforts through political waters more typically dominated by big-spending corporate sharks. And yet Meyer—who rarely works on the kind of attention-getting bills that either make or take away, money—never fails to stand out. How?

In pushing the ACLU's free-speech agenda, Meyer is hardly shy about doing so loudly. And persistently. In a clear display of Meyer's infamy, no one elicited more direct comments. Those comments, however, reflect her scores: People think she's on the right side of issues, and is trustworthy, but they say she'd be way more effective if only she toned things down.

As one otherwise sympathetic aide wrote: "It is, in fact, NOT the end of Western civilization as we know it if the legislator disagrees with you."

After a 2009 session in which all five of the ACLU's bills became law, this year the group sponsored only two. One became law. Meyer, who declined to comment on our survey, probably scored her biggest victory this year in Portland. Her work was instrumental in putting limits on how cozy the city and the FBI can become in a reconsidered Joint Terrorism Task Force agreement.

"She doesn't back down from things, and I think that's appropriate," Representative Frederick said.

Representative Sheehan said he felt Meyer was "disingenuous" at times, but he, like everyone else in the capitol, it seems, respects her vigor. "She's fighting really hard for a side that doesn't get a lot of popularity or support. The ACLU has to protect all the absolute whackjobs out there, so she's got a really tough job."

ARTHUR TOWERS: THE IDEALIST

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Scores: Integrity 5.9; Public Interest 5.6; Effectiveness 5.7

Clients: 1, Service Employees International Union Local 503

Oregon might not be Wisconsin, waging jihad against public employees. But it isn't easy anywhere in America, at a time of disastrous and painful budget cuts, to do a job that consists of making sure public employees continue collecting paychecks.

Then there's Arthur Towers. Sure, he's a one-note guy, stalking the capitol building on behalf of thousands of SEIU members, and arguing forcefully against blunt-force budget cuts to social services programs. But few of our respondents, even among the GOP, decided to hold that against him. Maybe that's also because union support—knocking on doors, calling voters—means a lot for progressives and moderates come election season. Or maybe it's because Towers is such a peach.

"You'd think he was a brand-new intern," one respondent wrote. "But when he tells you there's a problem, you know that there is. When he wants to talk, legislators always find time."

Lawmakers pretty much said the same thing on the record.

"There's only a couple who have come in and told me the whole truth," Representative Frederick says. "That's a lot more straightforward, and most of those folks are the pros."

Adds Representative Cannon: "He's a very good lobbyist. He's straightforward, factual, and tries to help legislators, not threaten them."

There was one commenter who had a snarkier view of Towers' passion, noting the color of the T-shirts SEIU members wear when descending on Salem for rallies, saying Towers "drinks the purple Kool-Aid... hard."

Towers took that in stride. "I'm a true believer. The biggest problem facing the legislature is cynicism. If you're cynical about the work, about service, about voters, about the process, then you should get the hell out."

KRISTEN LEONARD: THE DARLING

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Scores: Integrity 5.7; Public Interest 5.7; Effectiveness 5.8

Clients: 11, including NARAL Pro-Choice, Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Association of Oregon Recyclers, 1000 Friends of Oregon, SEIU Local 49, SEIU Local 503, Oregon Trial Lawyers Association  

Kristen Leonard fronts for a smorgasbord of progressive clients. Taking tough stances on fault-line issues and causes, from the budget to the environment, ought to make her a target for disillusionment on one side of the aisle, vitriol on the other.

And yet, like Towers—in survey after survey, handed in from offices across the political spectrum—she comes across with sparkling marks and swooning comments. "Simply great—as always." "True professional." "All-star." "Awesome." "Trustworthy." "Best in the business."

Leonard—one half of political firm C&E Systems with her husband, Kevin Neely—says, simply, that she doesn't believe in surprising legislators.

"She's very honest and pleasant to deal with," says Senator Shields. "She's not just interested in moving her own individual agenda. She sees how all these issues are interrelated and will work with you on your agenda."

As Leonard says, "It'd be easier to sit there and work with one legislator to get a bill drafted, and get amendments drafted, and then say that everyone else will learn about it when it's in committee. But I've found that if you talk to folks in advance, you can not only come to a point of compromise, but it also leads to longer-lasting relationships."

Her work in helping along this year's bottle bill expansion, two sessions after she first took up the issue, is a tiny example of how those relationships can bear fruit, she said.

"I'd be scared to say we're highly successful," she says. "It's hard. It takes a lot of sessions."

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The Legislator Lobbyist

Wilsonville Republican Matt Wingard is co-chair of the House Education Committee, deciding which education bills make it to a vote. But Wingard derives his main income from an online charter school, Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA).

And he's used his position in the legislature to stump for the school that cuts his paychecks. In 2009, Wingard gave a speech on the House floor extolling the "success story that is Oregon Connections Academy" and slamming new charter school regulations.

He did not mention, in his speech, that the school employs him as a public relations consultant—which he listed as his primary income on 2009 state records in addition to paychecks from right-leaning think tank Cascade Policy Institute.

Under the legislature's loose conflict-of-interest rules, that stump speech isn't a violation. But whether it's ethical is a different question. This session as co-chair, Wingard supported three bills benefiting online schools that made it to a last-minute vote this week.

"Wingard has used his position as a legislator to advance bills that would increase profits for his employer," writes progressive watchdog group Our Oregon, which blogged the video of Wingard's 2009 speech.

Oregon has a "citizen legislature," which means that for the 18 months out of every two years the legislature isn't in session, most lawmakers have other jobs.

They are required to announce potential financial conflicts of interest on bills only right before a full House vote—but not when a bill is being debated or is up in a public hearing.

Wingard's chief of staff, Jesse Alexander, notes that the representative followed all the House rules and disclosed his employment on state forms. The reason he pushed for bills benefiting online schools "is not because he's making money off of them," says Alexander. "He's proud of the work they do."


Our full spreadsheet of lobbyists rankings is here.


Illustrations by Corey Thompson

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