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In Fla., lobbyists vital to campaigns

Florida lobbyist Ron Book has done it all in a political campaign.

He has licked envelopes, planted yard signs and sweated through shirts in August to knock on doors for candidates. When presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain came to Florida for a fundraiser a few weeks ago, Book dropped off $15,000 in checks.

On the night in 1992 that Carrie Meek became the first black person Florida sent to Washington since Reconstruction, Book not only joined in the celebration, he also helped keep it going — hoisting a serving tray full of champagne.

While McCain and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, have publicly turned lobbyists into lepers, kicking them off campaigns or branding their donations as invitations to corruption, a simple truth remains unchanged:

Virtually every significant race, from state House and Congress to president, bears the footprints of lobbyists.

McCain and Obama have purged working lobbyists from their campaign payrolls. And yet, McCain's chief foreign policy adviser is Randy Scheunemann, a big-time Washington lobbyist. How? He has taken an unpaid leave of absence from his firm.

The man who co-directed Obama's primary campaign in Puerto Rico, Francisco J. Pavia, is a registered Washington lobbyist for the government of Puerto Rico. But it's okay because he's only a volunteer to Obama's campaign.

"It's mostly symbolic. They both still rely heavily on people who represent special interests," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "It's not easy to eradicate all traces of Washington."

Away from the intense spotlight of a presidential campaign, say in Tallahassee, there's no such fussing about appearance.

"When you're a political junkie, and trust me, I'm a junkie, you get your proverbial fix on the campaign trail," said Book, who lobbies for major corporations such as BellSouth and Wal-Mart, cities and counties and nonprofit hospitals.

But he freely acknowledges the hard work and big checks have an aim: "I'm looking to get my phone calls returned. I'm looking to get a door opened when I need a door opened."

Lobbyists — there are 13 for each of the 160 legislators in Tallahassee and scores more at the local government level — measure success in the relationships they forge with elected officials. Walking door to door or spending a day making hundreds of phone calls to voters not only provides access but also demonstrates loyalty and investment. With relatively new bans on picking up dinner tabs for lawmakers, lobbyists say the campaign work is even more important.

"The best lobbyists find creative ways to get involved outside money," said Mike Harrell, whose clients include Verizon Wireless, Dosal Tobacco and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

This election season, Harrell's firm will lend up to four employees to walk precincts, take people to the polls and wave signs. Another tactic: chauffeuring candidates.

"It's terrific face time and it doesn't slow the person down," Harrell said.

Bob Levy, a lobbyist who has a side business running campaigns for judicial candidates, has his own enterprising ways. His clients include tow truck operators and cab drivers, and every fall their vehicles sport bumper stickers of candidates they hope will be friendly to their concerns.

Levy will also round up nurses (one of the groups he lobbies for) to walk precincts door to door for candidates, and dispatch his own employees, as he did recently for state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who was collecting signatures to get his name on the ballot this fall.

"No candidate ever forgets the people who walk for them," Levy said. When it comes time to lobby an issue in Tallahassee, he makes sure a person who walked for a candidate tags along for the meeting.

"In Tallahassee, you maybe have five to 10 minutes to talk to a lawmaker," said lobbyist Michael Corcoran, who has volunteered for Fasano. "Being out there with the candidates helps you understand their districts, their motivations and their desires for the community."

• • •

The attention on lobbyists at the federal level is borne of the influence-peddling scandals that have erupted in Washington, which led to changes in how Congress operates.

Now in the presidential campaign, a struggle to be most virtuous pits a longtime crusader against money in politics and a new-era politician who promises an end to old Washington practices.

Last week, Obama raised the stakes again by announcing the national Democratic Party will no longer take contributions from federal lobbyists or political action committees. But the rules are not retroactive, thus protecting $2.5-million Obama helped raise on Wednesday in Washington.

Against that backdrop, it would seem Florida lobbyists and lawmakers might feel the heat. Not yet. Indeed, two Tallahassee lobbyists are involved in the campaigns of Obama and McCain.

Allan Katz, one of the so-called Democratic superdelegates, is a member of Obama's national finance team. Brian Ballard, a major player in Gov. Charlie Crist's 2006 election and one of the top lobbyists in the state, is the head of McCain's fundraising effort in Florida.

Ballard and Katz steer clear of the campaigns' lobbyist rules because they volunteer and they are registered to lobby in Florida, not Washington.

"I've always been involved in campaigns because my heart was in it," said Ballard, who got his start in politics by carrying luggage for Gov. Bob Martinez in the late 1980s. "And it's exciting. Politics is sport for us guys who aren't very athletic."

Lawmakers say the connection works both ways.

"In this process, sometimes you have 60 seconds to make a decision, which is unfortunate, so you have to be able to trust people to give you the right information," said state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who remains close to lobbyists who helped get her elected in 2004. "I trust them."

In Fla., lobbyists vital to campaigns 06/08/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 4:22pm]
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