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Water lobbyist puts access to good use

The moment demonstrated H. Clyde Hobby's most valuable asset.

Last year, Gov. Lawton Chiles stopped in Holiday during a campaign run _ to tell cheering residents that the state would keep a controversial stoplight at U.S. 19 and Darlington Road.

"When the governor's car pulled up, Clyde got out of the back seat with the governor," County Commissioner Ed Collins said Friday. "You can't get closer than that."

Access _ just what the County Commission wants from a lobbyist.

One year later, Pasco commissioners are hoping that Hobby's list of connections with important political players in Tallahassee will equate to one thing: influence.

Commissioners voted earlier this month to hire Hobby as Pasco's water lobbyist and instructed him to hire a water attorney to represent the county in the complex and increasingly tense wrangling over Pasco's water.

State lawmakers and regional water officials will help decide the future of Pasco's water. Pasco leaders want a say in their decision-making.

Hobby already makes $25,000 a year as the county's lobbyist on transportation issues. His salary as water lobbyist is not yet set.

Hobby, once a little-known Dade City attorney who specialized in land-use issues, has parlayed friendships with key Democratic players into a busy lobbying career.

Call it the I-word _ influence. It's a lobbyist's bread and butter. And Hobby makes no apologies for having friends in important places.

"I think I have as much influence as anyone else Pasco County could have hired," Hobby said in a recent interview at his New Port Richey law office. An autographed photo of Gov. Lawton Chiles that hangs on a wall helps to make his point.

Among friends: Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay and Gov. Chiles, with whom Hobby has been known to go turkey hunting.

His access has so far impressed members of the Pasco County Commission. Even Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who objected to the manner in which Hobby was hired _ she said the process was too hasty _ does not specifically object to the man himself.

Right now, Hobby's lobbying services are clearly in demand.

Hobby formally began his lobbying career in 1991, when he could count his clients on one hand. Back then, they were all based in Pasco. Today, his appeal appears to be more broadly based.

Hobby is registered with the state as a lobbyist for seven groups besides Pasco, ranging from the Association of Voluntary Hospitals Inc. in Tallahassee to Regents College in Albany, N.Y.

It's influence Pasco leaders appreciate. As Pasco Commissioner Hap Clark said recently, Hobby "can walk into the governor's office like I can walk into (County Administrator) John Gallagher's office."

That, said Hobby, is what the county needs as it moves to protect a precious resource _ water.

"In legislative lobbying and consulting, it's basically about trying to convince people of your point of view," Hobby said. "You have to have access to do that. And to have access, you have to have friendships with these people."

Joseph E. Mannion, another Pasco lobbyist and legislative consultant, said Hobby provides the county with those skills. "He's got the credibility and the access to be successful," he said.

Homer Clyde Hobby was born in Dade City on July 13, 1941, the son of a schoolteacher and a gas station worker who managed later in life to buy his own station and fuel distributorship.

"He didn't come from wealthy roots," said Assistant Pasco Schools Superintendent John Long, a longtime friend of Hobby and a former power in the state House.

After graduating from Pasco Comprehensive High School in Dade City, Hobby received a full scholarship from Stetson University, where he would eventually earn his law degree.

Hobby then joined forces with Dade City attorney Joe McClain, a onetime lawyer for the School Board. But by the 1970s, Pasco had entered an unprecedented building boom _ and Hobby's eyes were drawn west.

Hobby relocated to New Port Richey after 16 years with McClain, and by the late 1970s Hobby became better known as he handled an increasing array of zoning cases on Pasco's west side.

Hobby, who now lives in Hillsborough County, said his lobbying began with fund-raising _ for then-state Rep. John Long.

Along the way, he said he began to become familiar with leaders in the House.

By 1990, he said Long began to tell him he might want to become more involved in lobbying. Development had slowed from its 1970s heyday, and times were slower for a land-use lawyer.

Hobby isn't shy about some of his accomplishments since then. For instance, he said Pasco couldn't have won state approval for the Suncoast Expressway without his help as a transportation lobbyist.

"It's being built because of me _ because Pasco County hired me," Hobby said. The statement goes undisputed by Pasco commissioners. "He did play a major role," Collins said.

But don't ask Hobby for a resume listing his accomplishments _ Hobby said he has never kept one. Perhaps it's fitting _ influence is a difficult force to measure, he said. "If you need a resume from me to hire me," Hobby said, "then you need to find somebody else."

But access and influence do have limits.

A year ago, Hobby found himself squarely up against the ire of his longtime friend John Long, when Long was still chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

When Long caught word that some people around Tallahassee thought they could control Long by hiring Hobby, he reacted swiftly.

"I was told by some he was using my name. He assured me he didn't," Long said. "I just wanted to make it clear to him that I have a lot of friends, but I control my own votes."

Long cut funding to two of the groups Hobby worked for as a lobbyist. His message was clear: Friendship didn't automatically bring influence.

Hobby today denies that he ever expressed to anyone that he could control Long's vote _ and Long said he believes him.

Good lobbying, Hobby said, relies instead on having the ability to influence people with strong facts. Without access, he said, that isn't possible.

But Ted Williams, Pasco's property appraiser and himself a player in Pasco politics, warned that influence can be all too fleeting _ in with one administration, out with another.

"Influence is one of those things," Williams said. "It's sort of like chastity _ one minute you've got it; the next minute, you don't."