Right now, your legislators in Salem are cleaning out their desk drawers. The legislative session wrapped up last week, and lawmakers won't be back in their chairs until January 2010.
And while end-of-session attention usually focuses on how elected representatives have performed, there's another powerful group in Salem that traditionally flies under the radar: the lobbyists. Seven hundred and eighty registered lobbyists flooded the halls of the Oregon House and Senate this legislative session, paid to defend the interests of everyone from Portland General Electric to the Oregon Midwifery Council.
Influencing is an expensive business: Oregon lobbying groups shelled out a reported $8,356,158.80 in the first three months of 2009. To put that figure in context, with the same amount of money Portland could have filled its entire budget shortfall for the year—saving the 112 city jobs that got cut in Mayor Sam Adams' May budget.
Contrary to popular belief, not all lobbyists are wallet-stuffing greed bags. As advocates for think tanks, political action groups, and businesses, lobbyists know the in-depth research behind bills that fly across legislators' desks. Lobbyists can work the political machine, but they can also help young representatives through it.
"We're completely outgunned by the lobbyists," says Northeast Portland rep Chip Shields. "We have only 1.5 [people on] staff—but the lobbyists have been down here forever, and they know the process."
The question everyone wants answered is how much individual lobbyists are paid. Sadly, Oregon laws do not force the lobbying industry to be so transparent. Every group that hires lobbyists must report how much money they spent on lobbying activities—but they don't have to break down the amount they spend on individual lobbyists, and many groups hire multiple lobbyists at once.
So who are the most powerful lobbyists? Your public interest-minded friends at the Mercury distributed an anonymous "Rate the Lobbyists" survey to 90 legislative insiders in early June, asking them to rate a selection of 42 of the most prominent lobbyists from 1 to 7 on three criteria: Integrity, public interest, and effectiveness. The entire survey is online at the Mercury's website (portlandmercury.com), but here are some of the highlights from the 35 returned surveys.
KRISTEN LEONARD: PROGRESSIVE ACTIVIST ALL-STAR
Leonard was rated best overall lobbyist on our survey, scoring an average 6 out of 7 in all three categories. Legislative aides consistently praised her as "respectful, honest, smart, and awesome," a "progressive all-star, "a "class act," and "best lobbyist around." She even has a "contagious laugh," wrote one respondent. Leonard runs lobbying firm C&E Systems with her husband Kevin Neely, and represents a long, left-leaning list of clients: the Association of Oregon Recyclers, the Coalition for Consumer Mental Health Protection, the Oregon District Attorneys and Trial Lawyers' associations, SEIU Local 503, and NARAL Pro Choice Oregon.
Leonard got into lobbying after working for the Oregon Education Association, a teachers' union, for 10 years. "I worked in coalition with a lot of progressive partners there," she says.
"I'm not in this for the money," says Leonard. "What's always been important for me is that I have to believe in what I'm working on. I don't think I'd ever last if I were doing this just for the money or to accumulate a certain number of clients."
PAUL ROMAIN: TAX KILLER
Romain was ranked on our survey as the lobbyist with the widest discrepancy between integrity, public interest, and high effectiveness (averages of 3, 3, and 6 out of 7, respectively), making him perhaps the most dangerous man in the capitol building. His clients include the Oregon Pawnbrokers Association, the Oregon Beer and Wine Distributors Association, and the Oregon Petroleum Association. Respondents to our survey asked Romain to "quit killing the beer tax," and perhaps summed up his occasionally abrasive reputation best with the phrase, "Good lobbyist, fucker!"
Another comment appears to have come from a legislator: "Ugh—this lobbyist's smug effectiveness drives me nuts. He's been around forever, offering the same arguments and continuing to put a stranglehold on important reforms." Meanwhile one aide pointed to Romain's tough attacks against Portland Representative Ben Cannon's priorities: "He did a great job of trying to ruin Ben Cannon, smiling all the way."
Representative Cannon says he and Romain went head-to-head over his plans for a beer tax and expanding the bottle bill. "Those were bills Paul tried hard to kill," says Cannon, tempering any evident frustration with diplomatic words. "Paul and I get along great, and I think he's a very effective lobbyist and clearly does his work very well."
Romain also had to apologize to his fellow lobbyists in 2007 over unreported expenses involved in taking legislators to two Beer & Wine Distributors Association conferences in Maui in 2002 and 2004. "Paul Romain is still one of the most powerful lobbyists in Salem," says Senator Jackie Dingfelder. "Which is somewhat surprising given his fall from grace over the ethics issue."
"That changed the whole nature of the lobbyist/legislators relationship," says Romain's fellow lobbyist Dave Barrows, who can no longer take legislators to Trailblazers games following a tightening of the ethics laws related to Romain's Maui trips.
"I usually don't even comment on any kind of survey," says Romain, in response to the negative feedback. "I don't really like swimsuit contests." But, he replies, "I probably killed their tax... If you're against them on something then you must be evil, you must have no integrity, you must not be working in the public interest, because the public interest is what that member of the public says it is."
"I actually have very high integrity," Romain continues. "I would never make an argument I don't believe in."
Romain says he and Ben Cannon do fight, but that they have also "moved on." He says the issue of the Maui trips is "totally cleared up." "The only ones who bring it up are the people whose legislation I have defeated," he says. "I'm paid to represent an interest and you have to be effective. I could be the most well-liked person in Salem, but I'd be letting people roll over me the whole time."
TOM AND DAVE BARROWS: DYNAMIC FATHER-SON DUO
Dave Barrows has been a lobbyist in Salem for 50 years, so it's hardly surprising that his son has chosen to follow him into the business.
Barrows "wrote the book on lobbyist conduct," according to our survey respondents, and he and his son, Tom, represent big-name clients like Portland developer Ball Janik, Clear Channel Outdoor, drug company Merck, Merritt Paulson's Shortstop company, and the Oregon Alliance of YMCAs.
"They are definitely hired guns. The big corporations that have very strong financial agendas will hire those guys," says State Representative Chip Shields. Despite big money behind the pair, Shields says these two are honest and straightforward about their business. "They've never lied to me, they've never betrayed me," he says.
The Barrows earned an average of 5 out of 7 for integrity, 5 (Tom) and 4 (Dave) for public interest (Barrows senior was criticized by one survey respondent for writing "hit pieces on the ban on a carcinogenic flame retardant," while another wrote that he has "lost credit after becoming a typical contract lobbyist"), and 5 each for effectiveness.
"That's not true," says Barrows senior, about the alleged hit pieces. "I did represent those folks, but I did not write the hit pieces—in fact the lobby team thought it wasn't a good idea to mail them out."
"You learn to be just as pleasant as you can, even in defeat, because today's opponent may be tomorrow's best friend. That's the key," says Barrows, when asked what he has learned from half a century as a lobbyist. "Always tell the truth, never fudge, never round the corners off, and be nice to the staff—that'll get you a long way down the road."
Are the Barrows hired guns?
"If we're effective, I guess that's a fair statement, but we also represent a lot of people that are not big guns, for example the YMCAs. We represent Trillium family services, which deals with kids with severe mental health issues. These are not rape and pillage clients," Barrows responds.
Barrows adds that he has no immediate plans to retire.
MARK NELSON: DEVIL'S RIGHT HAND MAN
Like Romain, Nelson was consistently rated among the lobbyists as possessing low integrity (an average of 3 out of 7), working least in the public interest (an average 3 out of 7), but who are highly effective (an average of 5 out of 7). Nelson drew by far the most negative comments on our survey, described as a "creepy dude," "the silent villain from horror movies," and "against all that is good." By contrast, people are struck by "how much power he has," and write, "if we ever meet Satan, we're pretty sure he's going to bear a striking resemblance to Mark Nelson."
Nelson runs lobbying firm Public Affairs Counsel. Its most controversial clients include Anheuser-Busch, Pfizer, and Reynolds American (big beer, big pharma, and big tobacco). There are also corporate clients including 7-Eleven, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Les Schwab, and the Oregon Restaurant Association.
Nelson employs two other lobbyists at his firm: Erica Hagedorn and former right-wing Oregonian columnist David Reinhard, who took the paper's buyout offer back in November 2008. In 2007, Nelson was reportedly part of a $12 million campaign that defeated a ballot measure intended to raise tobacco taxes to pay for children's health care.
"We represent a lot of issues that are very controversial, such as tobacco, and we're generally on the opposite side in terms of taxation," says Nelson, responding to the criticism. "We also represent what some people perceive as white hats [or] black hats—but that's just the nature of the business."
"David [Reinhard] has done an excellent job; he's strategic, an excellent writer, a very soft-spoken guy. I think everyone perceived him to be an ideologue, but I don't know how many people have come up to me and said what a nice guy he is," says Nelson.
Nelson quit smoking 15 years ago, but says he continues to represent Reynolds because of the smokers who have to pay taxes.
"I have a thing about zealotry," he says. "I don't care if it's zealotry at smokers or minorities or whoever it is. Zealots are zealots."
ANDREA MEYER: BLEEDING HEART
Meyer works as a lobbyist for only one client—the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. Meyer has worked successfully on a series of important issues this session, like defeating the planned "Real ID" program, which would require the DMV to scan and store copies of people's birth certificates, social security cards, and US passports. She helped stop the state from passing laws allowing employers to discriminate against medical marijuana users and also defeated plans to keep a statewide database of Oregonians' prescription medications. Meyer even found time to show up in Multnomah County Circuit Court in January to watch ACLU partner attorney Elden Rosenthal challenge the city's controversial "secret list" of downtown offenders ["Secret List On Trial," News, January 15].
But despite Meyer's obvious integrity and work in the public interest (she scored an average of 6 out of 7 in both categories), her surveyed effectiveness was slightly lower, scoring an average of 4 out of 7. While some said Meyer had a "great sense of humor," others said she could be "very abrasive," and one person pondered: "ACLU kool-aid, anyone?"
"This session the ACLU introduced five legislative proposals," says Meyer. "The most proactive agenda we've had in years, and all five of the ACLU's proposals were passed into law this session. That's my response to the effectiveness issue."
JL WILSON: BOTTOM OF THE BARREL
Wilson's scores were the lowest on our survey, with a 3 on integrity, a 2 on public interest, and a 4 on effectiveness: an average overall score of 3 out of 7. "He is a jerk," wrote one respondent. "Complete fucking asshole," wrote another. Oops.
Now vice president for commerce group Associated Oregon Industries, Wilson has had a checkered history in the capitol. Back in 2007, Willamette Week reported that he was representing 30 disparate groups, many of whose interests diverged with those of his main employer at the time, the National Federation of Independent Business. "That just wasn't true," says Wilson, though WW stands by the story.
Mark Nelson also employed Wilson for a short time on a contract basis.
"I wouldn't put any stock in any survey on lobbyists, legislators, staffers, and the like; it tends to be subjective work," says Wilson. "I think it's kind of funny. This will be a badge of honor for me. My integrity is above reproach in the building, and I don't think there was any business lobbyist who scored any wins in this session."
"It's kind of surprising," says Wilson, when asked to respond to the comments about being a "jerk" and an "asshole." "I'm kind to everybody," he says. "And I enjoy what I do, so they probably just don't like what I had to say."
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
The Oregon Ethics Commission oversees the multi-million dollar lobbying industry, but ironically the group is strapped for cash. They had to make layoffs this year, so now a mere two staff members are responsible for checking up on all of Oregon's lobbyists. Plus, Oregon is ranked in the weakest category when it comes to lobbying reporting laws, says Kenneth Gross, a national ethics lawyer who presents annually on lobbying law to the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws in Washington, DC. Oregon law defines "lobbying" so narrowly, says Gross, that lobbyists do not even have to report efforts to influence the governor, only legislators.
But Oregon has actually improved recently. "Oregon rated a D before, but has jumped up to a good solid B plus," says Janice Thompson, herself a lobbyist for the watchdog group Democracy Reform Oregon, which pushes to get big money out of politics. She points out that an overhaul of lobbying reporting law back in 2007 now allows auditors to cross check lobbyists' reports.
Though lobbyists rub elbows with legislators in the capitol halls and get paid big money to snag one-on-one time with the politicians, do not despair, little voter. Legislators say that actual constituents, not lobbyists, get first dibs on meetings if they can make it down to Salem. "Constituents always get meetings, lobbyists don't," says Southeast Portland Rep. Jules Kopel Bailey. "Constituents go right to the head of the line," agrees Rep. Shields, "The power of the lobby declines as the power of the constituents increases."
—Rachael Marcus and Hannah Franklin contributed reporting to this story.
• To download a pdf of how the lobbyists rank up click here.OR
• To download an excel spread sheet of how the lobbyists rank up click here.