Several years ago, one of the best-connected Capitol lobbyists was asked about the future career prospects of a retiring veteran Assembly Republican who had frequently caused problems for leaders of his party. The lawmaker was then in his 50s; he needed a job.
“Yeah,” conceded the lobbyist. “He’ll be hard to place.”
Consider the word “place.”
It paints an accurate picture of the symbiotic, revolving-door relationship between veteran lawmakers and lobbyists.
Candidates for the Legislature from both parties rely on help from lobbyists to get them elected and re-elected. Then legislators, who have worked with the same lobbyists for years or decades, often turn to those lobbyists for advice on their next jobs—frequently with six-figure salaries—after they leave the Legislature.
In the case of that retiring Assembly Republican, the lobbyist—although he was a former Democratic legislator—was acknowledging that he expected the lawmaker to seek his advice, and maybe a recommendation, for a better paying job somewhere in or around state government.
It didn’t help that the legislator had vexed both Democrats and Republicans, so he couldn’t make the revolving-door jump to lobbying. The first rule of lobbying is being respected—or powerful—enough to have legislators and their aides respond to your contacts, and get facetime meetings with them.
Another problem for the Republican legislator was the fact that then-Gov. Jim Doyle was a Democrat who would not give him an administrative job in state government. Doyle’s two terms ended in 2010.
Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, now president of the UW System, gave top appointments to Democratic legislators. The four-term Thompson left office in February 2001.
Lobbyists also interact socially with legislators at fundraisers or when their paths cross in downtown Madison bars and restaurants. A former railroad lobbyist, for example, boasted that he knew what Thompson’s top aide liked to drink.
In those informal sessions, lobbyists can offer professional and personal advice.
Kind words from lobbyists can help legislators, and even their aides, with a reputation for Capitol “heavy lifting”- the phrase used for those at the table when the biggest deals are cut—end up with high-paying jobs running statewide trade associations or lobbying for powerful clients.
Former President Barack Obama, in his book A Promised Land, recalled advice from a lobbyist he got during his second term as an Illinois state senator.
“One day while I was standing in the [Capitol] rotunda after a bill I’d introduced went down in flames, a well-meaning lobbyist came up and put his arm around me,” Obama wrote.
“‘You’ve got to learn to stop beating your head against the wall, Barack,’ he said. ‘The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business. Like selling cars. Or the dry cleaner down the street. You start believing it’s more than that, it’ll drive you crazy’.”
By way of context, Obama at that point was weary of “the futility of being in the minority, the cynicism of so many of my colleagues worn like a badge of honor.”
“Politics in Springfield [was] a series of transactions mostly hidden from view, legislators weighing the competing pressure of various interest with the dispassion of bazaar merchants, all the while keeping a careful eye on the handful of ideological hot buttons—guns, abortion, taxes—that might generate heat from their base.
“It wasn’t that people didn’t know the difference between good and bad policy. It just didn’t matter. What everyone in Springfield understood was that 90% of the time voters back home weren’t paying attention.”
That may not be true for this session of the Wisconsin Legislature. Voters “back home” this year are watching how federal pandemic aid is spent, whether that cash replaces state aid for K-12 schools, if a $3-billion tax cut introduced by Republicans last week becomes law or is vetoed, and how election laws may change.
As the budget-writing session comes to a close, lobbyists play offense or defense—trying to get some favor tucked into the final budget Republicans put on the desk of Democratic Gov. Tony Evers or make sure that favor isn’t part of the Legislature’s budget.
How legislators respond to that lobbying can help determine their next jobs.
What happened to that retiring Assembly Republican? He got a Wisconsin-based job with a Republican member of Congress.
Steven Walters has covered the Capitol since 1988. Contact him at email@example.com