An Inside Look at Local Lobbying
Sasha Wong is no stranger to spam (the email, not the canned variety). So in early 2002, when she received an email from a co-worker, simply titled “Recycling,” she quickly dismissed it as junk mail. But instead of deleting it, as she normally would have, Wong opened the email and was moved by its content.
Wong isn’t a big-time powerbroker or a prominent lobbyist; she was just a concerned constituent. But in this case, her testimony, along with the testimony of hundreds of other average citizens just like her, proved more powerful and effective than that of all the heavyweight lobbyists hired by adversaries of the bottle bill. The bill passed the 2002 legislature and Gov. Ben Cayetano signed it into law.It was a call to action, asking local residents to contact their respective legislators in support of the now well-known bottle bill, which is precisely what Wong did. She hopped online, Googled contact info for her House rep, and within minutes, fired off an email expressing support for the bill, which basically required a refundable deposit on bottle and can purchases.
“The bottle law was an example of the success of really good grassroots support,” says Jeff Mikulina, who, for seven years, has lobbied in behalf of the Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Even though our opponents outspent us by about 30-to-1 [on lobbyist salaries and advertising] and had at least a dozen full-time lobbyists working on it, they couldn’t bring bodies out to testify. So the hearings were really crooked. We had hundreds in support and they had like 20 or 30 people. That was a big part of the reason it was passed.”
That’s not to say it was a quick and easy win for the environmentalists. In fact, Mikulina says variations of the bottle bill have been a priority for the Sierra Club from as far back as 1977, but, for some reason, they just weren’t able to progress until now: “I think back then, the [bottle] industry got really good at fighting the idea of a bottle law. We’ve since gotten a little more sophisticated and we’ve figured out how to channel support for our issues. That, and it was just a different political era.”
That it was. Lobbying’s changed quite a bit since the ’70s, ’80s and even part of the ’90s. Nowadays, society is much more technologically advanced and globally connected, and blatant political graft has reduced significantly. These sorts of changes enabled the quick rallying of grassroots support and the widespread dispersal of information that helped the lobbyists working on the bottle bill successfully promote it.
|photo: Cory Lum|
But it doesn’t just affect the way major, topical issues are lobbied. It’s altered virtually the entire lobbying process. For Hawaii’s 264 registered lobbyists, whose job it is to furnish lawmakers with the most accurate information in the most effective manner, entering the Age of Information has meant a change in nearly everything they do, from the tradition of gifting on opening day to how facts and data are disseminated. Of course the power players, the very influential and those with friends in high places are still more likely to be heard over others without those sorts of ties. But with the progression of the Internet, new lawmakers replacing institutional figures and the increasing rally for campaign spending reform, the business of lobbying has very much evolved. Some of the change has been for the better, while it’s still taking some time to get used to other aspects.
THE EMAIL FACTOR
Through the decades, technological advances (the advent of the Internet in particular) have had a tremendous affect on lobbying, which in Hawaii is a $3.75 million business. “Emailing is so widespread now and has made communicating so much easier that lobbyists tend to be more effective today,” says Gov. Ben Cayetano, who served as a state legislator from 1974 until 1986, when he was elected lieutenant governor. “In the old days, lobbying was much more personal. Lobbyists didn’t have those kinds of technologies to indicate to legislators that ‘if you don’t go along with what we want, we got all these people we can communicate with instantly.'”
The Internet became the solution to one of lobbyists’ biggest and most lasting challenges – channeling, and communicating with, all of their latent supporters. All of a sudden, instead of hunting down people to testify on their behalf, special-interest groups could set up a simple Web site, sit back and watch their supporters track them down. Once at the site, special-interest groups arm their newfound would-be advocates with all sorts of ammunition for the session. On the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawaii site, for example, you’ll find information about its legislative agenda, public testifying tips and links to state and county government sites. Visitors can also register online for “action alerts” by providing their contact info – a clever little strategy that provides the coalition with both a specified audience for its message and an active database of willing supporters.
Emails have also begun to play a big part in the business of lobbying. Groups often encourage people to email their legislators in support or opposition to bills, sometimes even creating form letters that constituents can easily copy, paste and slap their names onto. Of course, not all legislators appreciate the hostile takeover of their email inboxes, so smart lobbyists employ this strategy cautiously.
“I’ve seen that backfire a couple times,” says Mikulina. “In fact, there was one senator, who, right in the final throes of the bottle law, said to me, ‘If I get one more email about that bottle bill, I’m going to change my vote and vote against it. It’s clogging up my email and I can’t get any other mail.’ And I had to remind him, ‘Yeah, but remember – every one of those emails is a constituent who agreed with the issue, typed their names in and emailed you.”
If you ask any lobbyist or lawmaker what the single most important trait is for a good lobbyist to have, he or she will almost always have the same answer. “Credibility,” says Malia Manol, once a capitol field researcher, now a legislative coordinator for the Department of Health. “You don’t have a relationship or a career, or anything else in that building if you aren’t credible.”
Toyofuku says credibility has always been an essential lobbyist attribute, but is even more so now that legislators are becoming increasingly inundated with phone calls, letters and emails. “You’ve got to be as straightforward as possible – and this means discussing the opposing views honestly and if you find out you’ve given them misinformation, correct it as soon as possible. You build a reputation for being trustworthy and that creates good relationships.” It isn’t an overnight process, he adds. Building relationships, forging those bonds takes time, which explains why the most respected local lobbyists are well into their 40s, 50s and 60s.Veteran lobbyist Bob Toyofuku concurs: “You’re there to educate legislators on the issues, because they can’t possibly know all the details on every bill. So you have to be accurate, honest and straightforward, so they can trust what you’re telling them.”
NO MORE FAT BOY
The widespread use of technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed at the Capitol. It wasn’t long ago, that nearly the whole process reeked of corruption, and unofficial lobbyists such as Tom “Fat Boy” Okuda and his crew ran amok at the Capitol. “In those days, parking at the Capitol was just as tight as it is now. So if you got a ticket, you’d take it to Tom, and he’d take it, and that’d be the last you saw of it,” recalls Capitol Consultants of Hawaii Vice President John Radcliffe, who’s been lobbying for nearly 40 years. “Years later, I found out that was illegal. But it was just different back then. The Legislature was a lot more idiosyncratic. If a legislator wanted to clean his pistol at his desk, who was to say not? If people wanted to sit around the Capitol drinking all night, why the hell not? There were things like that, that went on that you couldn’t do today.”
“Certainly, the way money and politics flow together can still unduly influence the way people make decisions, but this isn’t the 1700s. Nobody’s getting bags of cash,” adds House Rep. Brian Schatz, who’s wrapping up his fourth term this session. “Nowadays, lobbying is a little more subtle, and a little more institutional and definitely more legal.”
The shift from a blatant influence peddling environment to a more ethical one occurred somewhere in the mid-’90s. It began with the state’s gift disclosure law in 1992, which required state workers to disclose any gifts exceeding $200. Hawaii State Ethics Commission Director Dan Mollway says the mere passage of the law slashed inappropriate gifting (which could range from hefty discounts on home and car purchases to lavish, all-expenses paid trips). After the passage of the law, whatever questionable activities continued to occur, the media scrutiny quickly squashed. And the makeup of the Legislature changed as well, with a number of vocal up-and-coming politicians growing less and less tolerable of the shenanigans.
HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS …
These days, gaining access to the upper echelons of the Capitol takes a lot more than knowing a legislator’s favorite bottle of scotch. You’ve got to know his hobbies, his haunts and his children’s soccer teams. “I make it my business to know as much as possible, within reason, about the legislators,” admits Radcliffe. “Because one of those connections might lead to a relationship. And relationships are critical in lobbying.”
Fortunately, because Hawaii is such a small, close-knit community, where one simple question, ‘What school you went?’ all but guarantees an instant connection, forging friendships is relatively easy. Hawaii’s low lobbyist-legislator ratio of 4-to-1 also makes it much easier for local lobbyists to gain face time with lawmakers than in other, larger states. In California, for example, there are nine lobbyists to every legislator, and in New York, the ratio is a staggering 18-to-1.
In some states, lobbyists may spend half their careers trying to befriend key lawmakers, such as the finance chair or senate president. Here, one of the top dogs at the Capitol, senate Ways & Means Chair Brian Taniguchi, says it isn’t nearly as difficult: “Knowing when legislators are relaxing or socializing during session, as well as knowing what legislators are doing off-session helps to build strong relationships for the future. Find nonpolitical common interests. Things like golfing, drinking wine, having very young children or children who play sports.” Taniguchi says even following the same TV shows help lobbyists and lawmakers build rapport.
“One important way politics works is that certain people have good connections, they know who to call and when. They’ve got a rolodex and can get access when they need it,” says UH political science professor Neil Milner. “But not everybody is a part of that network of influence, so some need to work harder at finding that access.”
Campaign support, both financial and manual, is one of the main ways lobbyists try to gain more political leverage. They may run numbers, do polling, fundraise or even serve as campaign managers for select politicians, as Toyofuku did for 2002 gubernatorial candidate Mazie Hirono. Some lobbyists even grease the skids on both sides, raising money for candidates in both the Democratic and Republican parties in the same election.
“There’s a definite difference in the way the parties are lobbied. In some cases, Republicans aren’t even lobbied at all, because they’re such a minority they may not even be worth the time or trouble,” says Republican Sen. Sam Slom. “But a good lobbyist treats everyone with respect and as equally as possible.” That’s because they’re in it for the long haul, and understand that even the people in the gravest of minority positions may one day be in leadership or majority positions.
Sometimes, however, even the best lobbyists, who are credible, trustworthy and have all the right connections, can’t score face time with the lawmakers. After all, with thousands of bills to sort through, hours of meetings and hundreds of constituents to deal with (and four months in which to do it all), legislators aren’t the most easily accessible of people. In these cases, the traditional, low-tech approaches are sometimes the most effective.
“We have to catch legislators when and where we can,” explains lobbyist Amy Hirano, who took over her husband Steven’s firm, Pacific Management Inc., after he passed away in 2003. “Lobbyists will bring manapuas to the Capitol for the staff, so when you call, they put you through. Sometimes that doesn’t work, so you just wait outside [the legislator's] office and catch them on the rail as they’re going from one meeting to another, or you go door to door in the evening when hearings are over.”
Sometimes, Hirano says, she takes her lobbying up a notch, to a place no man has gone before: “I’ve followed female legislators into the bathroom just to talk to them. It’s not ideal, but I do it.”
She isn’t alone. According to Radcliffe, most lobbyists, if they’re any good, have, at some point in their careers, followed lawmakers into the john. “I’ve done it. Lots of people have,” he says. “But we know our boundaries. Nobody’s going to importune you if you don’t want to be talked to. We’re not the paparazzi. We’re not trying to be pests. We’re just trying to win you over.”
HOW HAWAII STACKS UP
(1) Nevada doesn’t require lobbyists to register in even-numbered years when there is no session.