Politics

Winning Without Steak and Cigars

Old-fashioned, free-spending lobbyists are an endangered species in many places. But those who can adapt to the new rules have more clout than ever.
by | November 2000
 

Spend some time with Judy Taylor, and she'll likely offer you some of her famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. Or, if she has no fresh- baked cookies on hand, she might send you home with recipes so that you can try making them yourself. In the 24 years that Taylor has been lobbying the Kentucky legislature, her cookies have become something of a trademark. There once was a time when she would regularly drop off a batch at the House and Senate leadership offices, free for the taking to any legislator or staffer who knew where to look.

Judy Taylor is still baking cookies, and she's still lobbying the Kentucky legislature. But nowadays, Taylor isn't so generous with the handouts. She's not allowed to be. Since 1993, Kentucky's strict ethics law has banned lobbyists from giving legislators gifts of any kind. It even bans Judy Taylor's cookies.

She doesn't take it personally. But Taylor is still a little mystified about how something as trifling as a cookie got wrapped up in the gift ban. "Could I buy a vote for a cookie?" she says innocently. "I couldn't even rent one for a cookie."

It's probably true that Taylor, who is one of Kentucky's highest-paid contract lobbyists, never won a legislative battle solely on the basis of her baking skills. But it's also true that her baking had more of an object than getting rid of cookies she couldn't eat herself. Making them for legislators was an inexpensive but effective way for Judy Taylor to establish a name for herself. In a very subtle way, it helped her establish credibility with lawmakers, bite by bite.

Now that tool is gone. So are a few other tools that lobbyists once used to get lawmakers' attention. Under the new rules, it's difficult for a lobbyist to take a legislator out for lunch, or even, as state capitol regulars invariably put it, a cup of coffee. There are fewer of the nightly receptions that once kept Frankfort well fed. And lobbyists are prohibited from making any personal contributions to candidates for the legislature.

Frankfort used to be the sort of place where nobody blinked when lobbyists spent large sums of money wining and dining lawmakers. It was a part of the culture. When a lobbying scandal eight years ago produced the "no cup of coffee" law, however, all the rules changed. The art of lobbying in Kentucky has never been the same. "A lot of the principal lobbyists are still here, so folks have had to learn to adapt," says Bobby Sherman, head of the legislature's nonpartisan research staff. "It's more work for them. They have to build relationships in a different way, and information delivery is much more important."

While Judy Taylor was never a huge winer-diner, there's no question that the ethics law has changed her style along with everyone else's. New lawmakers are inclined to keep lobbyists at arm's length, and rely more on the advice of legislative staff. With fewer opportunities to socialize, it is more difficult for Taylor to get to know lawmakers and to gain their trust. She spends less time at parties or in the kitchen baking cookies, and more time in the halls of the capitol, tracking down the key people she needs to talk to. "It makes my job much more difficult," Taylor says. "It's easier to have a conversation over lunch."

That doesn't mean, however, that Judy Taylor is a less effective lobbyist than she was before. Like many of her counterparts, she has adapted to the new rules and the new culture and learned to thrive. Anyone who hoped that the ethics law might reduce lobbyists' influence will be disappointed to find out that their influence hasn't declined at all. It has merely changed shape. Some lobbyists, it might be argued, are actually more effective today than they were under the old rules.

There have been other unintended consequences, not only in Kentucky but in Massachusetts, Minnesota and a handful of other states that passed no-cup-of-coffee rules in the 1990s. The end of the wining-and- dining culture hasn't merely altered the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists. It's also changed the relationships among lawmakers themselves. Without the free-spending lobbyist as a sort of catalyst, "the end result is that people do not socialize," says Roger Moe, Minnesota's longtime Senate majority leader. "Legislators do not mix like we used to, and that's not good for the process. We don't get to know about one another on a personal basis--where people come from, what motivates them, what are their limits based on their constituencies. We just know one another by name or by party."

The current culture of the Kentucky legislature couldn't be more different than it was when Judy Taylor started lobbying in 1976, as a volunteer for the Kentucky Association of Older Persons. Then, lobbyists lived pretty much by their own rules. Only bribery was against the law, and that law wasn't always enforced very carefully.

Nowhere was this laissez-faire attitude more apparent than at the legislative retreat that preceded each biennial session. By day, legislators would study up on issues, but at night, they would head over to a row of cottages where lobbyists hosted wild parties. Some lawmakers would get stumbling drunk, and a few would be seen going home with call girls. When embarrassing tales of drunken debauchery hit the newspapers, public outrage put an end to the conferences.

Despite its occasionally unseemly side, Taylor found she enjoyed the intellectual "game" of lobbying. In 1978, she landed her first paid gig, with the Kentucky Chapter of Physical Therapists, which remains a client today. The group paid her just $1,500, and she made ends meet by substitute teaching. Given her limited resources, she couldn't afford to shower lawmakers with tickets to sporting events or take them out for dinner and drinks. So she took to baking cookies and leaving them in strategic places around the capitol.

Well into the 1980s and early '90s, Frankfort remained a feast when the legislature was in session. Lobbyists and their clients would throw lavish receptions at the Capital Plaza Hotel, complete with ice sculptures and baseball-sized shrimp. Flynn's Restaurant bustled with business from lobbyists treating groups of lawmakers to lunch or dinner. As Taylor's star rose and she eventually landed the prestigious Keeneland horse racetrack as a client, she gained the resources to join the dinner circuit, if only a couple of times a week. "Legislators understood that you were giving them an opportunity to do what they have to do anyway--which is to eat," Taylor says. "And you're just using the opportunity to bend their ear a little."

Taylor works as Keeneland's in-house lobbyist, and along with the physical therapists, also counts Kentucky's cosmetologists and the National Black Congress as contract clients. Over the years, she has represented a wide range of interests, from court reporters to Apple Computer. From January 1999 to April 2000, she earned $157,000, making her the 12th-highest-paid lobbyist in the state, according to an analysis by the newsletter Kentucky Roll Call.

At first glance, you probably wouldn't peg Judy Taylor for a lobbyist. But judging by her slight frame and warm, grandmotherly appearance, you might guess that she likes to bake cookies. Her looks hide a strong and persuasive personality that helped her to operate for years in a male-dominated field. When Taylor began working the legislature full time at age 38, she was Kentucky's first paid female lobbyist. Quickly, she earned the respect of lawmakers who saw her as a straight shooter and a valuable source of information.

Although Taylor, who is 60, calls herself an introvert, she holds her own just fine in the backslapping world of politics. She smokes Carltons, which gives her a deep, gravelly voice that adds force to her easy-going manner. And she clearly loves her profession (so too, apparently, does her daughter, Maresa Taylor Fawns, who lobbies for the Kentucky trial lawyers). Taylor frequently speaks to school kids about lobbying, and tries to dispel the maleficent lobbyist stereotype. Before one speech, her introducer sheepishly asked whether it was all right to mention what Taylor did for a living. "I'm a lobbyist and proud of it," Taylor replied. "There are bad teachers, preachers and members of the press, but to paint everyone with the same broad brush isn't fair."

On March 31, 1992, however, it was the bad lobbyists who stole all the news and changed the future of lobbying in Kentucky. Federal agents descended on the statehouse and announced the anti-corruption sting that came to be known as BOPTROT. Three lobbyists and 15 legislators, including the House speaker, were punished or jailed on bribery-related charges. Facing a decline in public confidence, shaken lawmakers reacted the following year by passing a sweeping ethics law. The law required lobbyists to register and to disclose their financial ties to legislators, and created an ethics commission to regulate lobbying and other questions of legislative ethics. It also included the gift ban, which pretty much ended the era of wining and dining in Frankfort.

The law pushed Kentucky from one ethical extreme to the other, giving it one of the most strict sets of ethics rules in the country. The all-you-can-eat culture around the statehouse dried up almost immediately. Although lobbyists are still technically allowed to treat lawmakers to a limited number of meals, it rarely happens. All such expenses must be reported to the ethics commission--and in the post- BOPTROT era, no legislator wants to be painted by political opponents or the media as cozy with special interests. If they go out for dinner, now they go Dutch.

Ethics commission statistics bear this out. In 1997, some 600 lobbyists in Kentucky reported spending a combined total of $14.20 on food and beverage. During this year's session, they didn't even drop 75 cents for a cup of coffee. The ethics law was a disaster for Frankfort's restaurants. A few years after the law took effect, Flynn's shut down.

Those over-the-top receptions dropped off, too. It used to be that on any given night of a session, Taylor could slip in and out of different parties and find many of the people she needed to talk to. Receptions are still legal, but only if every member of the general assembly, or of a recognized caucus, is invited. Many fewer parties are being held, and ethics-wary lawmakers don't attend in droves as they once did. It's no longer possible for Taylor to work one room and find all of the legislators she's looking for.

The ban creates all sorts of awkward social situations. Nearly every legislator and lobbyist in Kentucky has at least one lunch or dinner story whose punch line involves bumbling over how to split up the check. Lawmakers have been known to show up at a lobbyist's Christmas party--only to have to pay up for their share of the food and drink. If anything, it is the lobbyists these days who are getting the free ride. Often, legislators just pick up the tab themselves, in order to crush any hint of impropriety.

To many lobbyists, and even to many of the legislators who voted for the ethics law, all this seems like ridiculous meddling with natural social relationships. For members who count lobbyists as personal friends--and there are many--the nitpicking at times seems bizarre. And for a gregarious baking enthusiast with friendships dating back two decades, it is downright illogical. Judy Taylor says there is no way to separate the part of her that gave away cookies as a lobbying tool and the part of her that did it for simple pleasure and friendship.

But if the rules amount to social meddling, in the wake of BOPTROT most people around the statehouse see it as necessary. It's not the lobbyists or the legislators that the law was written for, but the public. Most voters think it just plain looks bad when lobbyists shower their representatives with goodies. Thus, the gift ban concerned itself at least as much with the appearance of impropriety as with impropriety itself.

Some supporters of the law argue that it in effect vaccinates the legislature from another BOPTROT. The lines are clearly drawn, and everyone is sensitive to appearances. It is much harder now for a lobbyist or legislator to slide carelessly from the unethical into the illegal. "This wasn't meant to plug holes in the law, as much as to remove the temptation," says Bill Lear, a Lexington attorney and former representative who sponsored the ethics bill. "If it was OK for a lobbyist to pay for your dinner, to invite you to his condo to play golf, and to send you a box of chocolates, then maybe you would not see that it's not OK in a casino for a lobbyist to hand you a stack of poker chips."

If the intent was to weaken lobbyists and the interests they represent, however, the no-cup-of-coffee law appears to have failed. In the new era, lobbyists do have less direct access to lawmakers. But they have cultivated new methods of accomplishing the same purposes. Since the gift ban took effect, associations and some corporations have been digging in at the grassroots. They have set up networks of "citizen lobbyists" who can make their case where it matters most to legislators: in their districts.

Taylor's first client, the Kentucky physical therapists' chapter, is a good example of this. At one time, the therapists pretty much stayed out of politics, leaving Taylor to be their face before the legislature. But now that Taylor's job in Frankfort is harder, the chapter's members are working to develop individual relationships with their elected officials. Each senator and representative has been assigned a "key contact," a physical therapist who is also a constituent.

Key contacts stay in touch with their legislators on important matters--the recent hot issue was prompt payment of insurance claims. They are encouraged to volunteer their time on campaigns. And since they are not registered lobbyists, they are free to buy lawmakers dinner anytime they like. "I no longer can take 10 legislators out to dinner and talk about physical therapists," Taylor says. "But 10 physical therapists can each take one legislator out for dinner and talk about what matters to them."

While the physical therapists are doing more of the work of lobbying themselves, Judy Taylor remains the quarterback, and she calls the plays. Key contacts carry the message, but it's Taylor's inside knowledge of the legislative process that makes the tactic work. "She's more of a strategist now," says Gwen Parrott, president of the therapists' association. "She lets us know when to contact legislators and what to say--and when to lay low and not say anything at all."

The ethics law has inspired clients to become more involved in political fundraising as well. While lobbyists can't contribute to campaigns anymore, members of an association or employees of a company can contribute--and they do, often on the advice or at the urging of the lobbyists who used to give the money themselves. "It's a fiction about lobbyists not being able to give any money," says David Karem, the longest-serving Kentucky senator. "There are ways that lobbyists legally do give money to legislators, or find a way to get money to legislators."

While lobbyists complain about being singled out unfairly by the campaign gift restriction, most don't really mind it. After all, it saves them money. And as long as clients pick up the slack, it doesn't cost the lobbyist any influence. "The power is the same, it's just achieved in a different way," Taylor says. "The ratio between the client and lobbyist has changed, but I don't think the sum is any different."

"It's better for us in the long term," agrees John Cooper, one of Kentucky's highest-paid contract lobbyists. "Legislators are more responsive to their constituents. Once you understand that, you realize that the most effective way to work a legislator is back home on his own terrain."

Meanwhile, lawmakers are increasingly becoming strangers to each other. The debauchery in the days of the annual retreat may have been distasteful, but it had a side benefit: Freshman lawmakers roomed together at the retreat and got to know each other quite well. Likewise, when lobbyists treated lawmakers at Flynn's, they often took large groups--including members from different parts of the state and from both political parties. These were people who might not otherwise gravitate toward each other or ever get acquainted. The wine-and-dine culture was the legislature's social lubricant. "We provided the opportunity," Taylor says, "and they did the talking to each other."

That camaraderie is gone now. Veteran members frequently complain that the job isn't as much fun as it used to be. That's fine with Kentucky voters, who expect their representatives to be working, not partying. But there is a subtle impact on the legislature as an institution. Two strangers on the House or Senate floor are more likely to judge one another by party labels, and this contributes to a higher level of partisan rancor. "It makes for a different tenor in the General Assembly," says Cooper. "You see a little bit more in the way of bitterness, arguments and personality conflicts, and it's simply due to the fact that members don't know each other as well."

To Judy Taylor, this is just another casualty of the no-cup-of-coffee era, to be put on the list right next to her spurned cookies. But given a choice between the system as it used to be and the way it is now, she opts for the present. "It's more professional now," she says. "And it gives the public greater confidence in the integrity of the process."

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