Lobbying right now
Who's in, who's not and more on Kasich's "bus" threat.
Neil Clark. Photo courtesy Grant Street Consultants.
Despite its cumbersome name, the JLEC list is hot stuff in the world of lobbyists. The roster shows which Statehouse lobbyists represent which clients in front of the General Assembly, state executive-branch agencies or Ohio’s public retirement systems. Kind of like Nielsen ratings of TV shows, the JLEC list is an approximation of who’s hot and who’s not in the high-stakes world of Statehouse lobbying. (For those who must know, JLEC stands for Joint Legislative Ethics Committee.)
And there’s been a noticeable changing of the guard in Lobby Land since the Republicans, who already owned the Senate, seized total control of state government by winning the governor’s office and the House of Representatives last fall.
So, as the thinking goes in Statehouse corridors, November’s election made it a new day—with a reconfigured in-crowd among the independent (as opposed to in-house) lobbyists who canvass state government on behalf of fat-cats . . . or those who’d like to be.
Now that six months have passed since the Republicans assumed power in January, it’s a good time to assess the lucrative state of lobbying. As one prospering lobbyist offers as a toast during dinners these days, “Here’s looking up your JLEC list!”
WHO’S IN WITH THE IN-CROWD
Bio: Thibaut (“TEE-boe”), who lives in the German Village house he grew up in, was a state Senate aide when John Kasich got elected to the Ohio Senate in 1978. When Kasich went to Congress in 1983, Thibaut served as his chief of staff.
Registered clients May 2009 (pre Kasich): Zero
Registered clients this May: 12
Among them: AEP’s Ohio Power unit, Medical Mutual of Ohio (the former Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Ohio), Corrections Corp. of America (the private prison outfit that may benefit from Kasich’s prison-privatization plans) and GTECH, the lottery and gaming vendor whose products include “video lottery” (electronic slot) machines. On June 15, Kasich started to clear the way for the installation at Ohio racetracks of the electronic slot machines. (Ted Strickland, as governor, started that ball rolling.)
GTECH also would like to manage the Ohio Lottery if the state opts for private management. Working with Thibaut on his GTECH representation is Mike Dawson, the spokesman for George Voinovich when he was Ohio governor from 1991 through 1998.
Bio: Once an aide to Republican Gov. James Rhodes, he first met Kasich in the 1970s, when Kasich was on the state Senate’s GOP staff. His Cochran Group Inc. is a key Columbus-based public relations firm.
Registered clients May 2009: Zero
Registered clients this May: Three.
Among them: Columbia Gas of Ohio, AEP’s Ohio Power unit and the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.
Side note: On June 7, Kasich appointed Cochran to a three-year term on the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation board of directors. Pay for the job depends on how many meetings a member attends, with an annual ceiling, set by state law, of $60,000. In 1981, Cochran managed a victorious business-labor coalition campaign that squashed (via a 79 percent “no” vote) a statewide ballot issue that, had it passed, would have let private insurers sell workers’ compensation coverage in Ohio (then, as now, a state monopoly).
Bio: Klaffky is president of Van Meter, Ashbrook & Associates, a lobbying/consulting firm founded in 1983 by the late Thomas Van Meter, an Ashland Republican who was a state senator and a spark plug of the Ohio conservative movement. Klaffky, a Senate aide from 1981 through 1986, is politically close to House speaker William Batchelder.
Registered clients May 2009: Eight.
Registered clients this May: 23.
Among them: FirstEnergy, Intralot (a GTECH rival), GEO Group (which, like Thibaut client Corrections Corp. of America, manages prisons), Dublin-based CompManagement, the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association of Ohio and the Columbus-based IQ Innovations (an online schooling company).
Bio: Preisse—Franklin County Republican chair since 2004—was an aide to then-Gov. Voinovich and before that an aide to state Senate Republicans. Preisse also is a principal at Klaffky’s Van Meter, Ashbrook & Associates.
Registered clients May 2009: Six.
Registered clients this May: 21.
Among them: Continental Real Estate (added after May), CAPA, Intralot and FirstEnergy.
WHO’S NOT IN
Bio: Self-described “chief strategist” to Ohio House Democratic leader Armond Budish (who was speaker last year), Melamed also managed Lee Fisher’s 1998 bid for governor. And he led the fight against the 2004 constitutional amendment forbidding same-sex marriage in Ohio.
Registered clients May 2009: Six, which may sound lean, except that among them was the Skilled Nursing Care Coalition, Statehouse pidgin for “nursing homes.” Nursing homes eat Ohio’s Medicaid dollars the way a glutton snarfs Cheetos—hence, it was an industry in the crosshairs of Kasich’s budget.
Registered clients this May: One: Multimedia Games of Austin, Texas, “a preeminent supplier of gaming technology to Native American tribes.” Lobbying isn’t Melamed’s sole endeavor, however; he and his firm also offer public relations and campaign consulting services.
Bio: Redfern, who is married to Democratic state chairman Chris Redfern, has some Republican ties in her background, but is self-identified as a social liberal. During the Strickland years, Redfern maintained a busy state-government lobbying practice. She says she now lobbies local governments instead of at the state level. (JLEC doesn’t register or list local-government lobbyists.)
Registered clients May 2009: 16, including Continental Real Estate and MTR Gaming Group, which owns Scioto Downs.
Registered clients this May: Zero.
SEEMINGLY ALWAYS IN
Despite recent financial problems (a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing in 2009) and a savage legal battle with former business partner and fellow superstar lobbyist Paul Tipps, Republican lobbyist Neil Clark (shown) continues to be a force at the Statehouse. Clark stays relevant no matter who runs the Ohio House or holds the governorship because of his strong ties to state Senate Republicans. He practically is the 34th state senator in a 33-seat Senate that Republicans have run since 1985.
Two years ago, with Ted Strickland as governor, Clark had about 45 lobbying clients. This May, he had 46. Among them: CheckSmart Financial (Dublin-based payday lender), MasterCard Worldwide, Ohio Health Care Association (nursing homes) and the Columbus Crew.
Clark is known for 30-plus years of loyalty to the Senate’s Republican majority, his employer when he was a Senate aide. Clark says his commitment to Senate Republicans illustrates a lobbying dynamic just as important as who is governor. “You make the choice,” Clark says, referring to the political affiliations and friendships lobbyists choose to cement—and the fights they’re willing to take on. “I have been very protective of my interest in the General Assembly,” he says.
As a matter of fact, Clark fought Kasich’s administration over Medicaid spending for Ohio nursing homes during this year’s state budget battle. “I have been an antagonist of administrations since my inception. . . . I will pick a fight with a governor.”
A VERY SHORT HISTORY OF OHIO LOBBYING
Lobbying has been a feature of Statehouse life since forever, although the regulation of lobbying dates only to 1913, when Democratic Gov. James Cox proposed, and legislators passed, a lobby registration law.
Statehouse lobbying has intensified because, in terms of state spending, there’s more to fight over, especially since Ohio joined the federal-state Medicaid program in 1965 and then six years later adopted a state income tax. Moreover, the “regulatory state,” exemplified by, say, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, means the interplay between business interests and state government has become more important.
LOBBYISTS BY THE NUMBERS
In January 1933, an Associated Press story published in the New York Times recorded that “there is at least one lobbyist for every two legislators in Ohio.”
Since then, the business has only grown. According to JLEC’s 2010 tally, 2,418 lobbyists had a total of 5,976 “engagements” (in laypersons’ terms, clients). The rough breakdown of kinds of lobbyists: 56 percent lobby legislators, 39 percent lobby state executive agencies and 5 percent lobby state retirement systems.
Dividing the 1,362 legislative agents by 132—the number of Ohio General Assembly members—means that last year there were 10 lobbyists for each state legislator at the Statehouse.
At least some Ohioans could find work.
AN INSIDER ON PERCEPTION
Kasich ally Doug Preisse concedes that what prospective lobbying clients think they see—inside relationships—may indeed build business for Ohio Statehouse lobbyists. “I think it’s pretty clear in this business that perception is important,” he says. “You can certainly find yourself with client opportunities.” He adds, though, that lobbying results are what matter. “You’re not going to hold onto clients without performance.”
KASICH’S THROW DOWN
Dan McCarthy’s Success Group was holding its traditional, post-election conference, Impact Ohio (a place to be for Statehouse insiders), at the Greater Columbus Convention Center two days after the 2010 election. The event was held in conjunction with the Ohio Democratic and Republican parties; Republican state chair Kevin DeWine was among the featured guests.
But percolating among lobbyists at Impact Ohio was a person-to-person news flash that Kasich was holding an event of his own at lunchtime at Brio Tuscan Grille in Polaris. Invitees to the pay-your-own-tab lunch were Statehouse lobbyists and even reporters—suggesting that someone not only wanted to send a message, he also wished to scatter it to the four winds.
That day’s agonizing dilemma for lobbyists: They could be at Brio or 14 miles south at the convention center.
Political cognoscenti immediately theorized that Kasich—or someone in his entourage (one suspect: lobbyist and pal Thibaut)—deliberately scheduled the Brio event to overlap part of the Impact Ohio schedule as a way to fire a shot across the bow of Success; Impact Ohio is a Statehouse tradition and the Kasich crowd isn’t big on traditions. What’s more, Kasich’s circle “is a mean group,” according to a Success Group competitor, who asked not to be identified. It was at Brio that Kasich made the now famous “If you’re not on the bus, we will run over you with the bus” threat (allies would say “challenge”) to Statehouse insiders.
A Kasich confidant, who declines to be named, but who is extremely close to the governor, says people around him, not the governor himself, devised the Brio event. The principal motive was to send a message to the Statehouse establishment, which, in general, had bet against Kasich winning. When Kasich did defeat Strickland, that crowd irked Kasich’s circle by claiming, in so many words, “Life goes on, no big deal.” But Kasich is a big deal to his friends—and, like True Believers everywhere, they think his vows of “change” will indeed produce “change.”
Republican lobbyist Chan Cochran says Kasich wanted to make it clear he’s breaking with the past: “ ‘There is a new sheriff in town . . .’ [and the message] had precisely the desired effect.” Kasich spokesman Scott Milburn, however, says the timing of the Brio lunch was a coincidence, as does the Success Group’s McCarthy. Despite Kasich’s philippic at Brio, it didn’t much change McCarthy’s lobbying profile; he had 40 clients in May 2009 versus 38 two years later.
TWO QUOTES FROM DEMOCRATS
Lobbyist Alan Melamed says, without offering specifics, that the Kasich crowd and its lobbying friends are going after clients of Democratic lobbyists. He says there always is some change in lobbying registrations when the governorship switches parties. But this time, says Melamed, “There is a concerted effort to hurt the other side.”
“It comes down to John Kasich’s closest friends,” adds Democratic state chairman Chris Redfern (shown). “In terms of Don Thibaut and Doug Preisse, it is the proximity to power that gives pause.”
A REPUBLICAN’S RESPONSE
Though Thibaut, Preisse and Klaffky were charter members of Team Kasich, gubernatorial spokesman Scott Milburn scoffs at any suggestion that winks-and-nods direct lobbying clients to favored lobbyists. “That’s not something we engage in or traffic in,” he says. “That is a decision [clients] make. It’s just not something we care about.”
Tom Suddes is an editorial board member of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, columnist on Ohio politics and adjunct assistant journalism professor at Ohio University.