Washington lobbyist Howard Marlowe has helped North Carolina's coastal towns get millions of federal dollars for beach renourishment. But John Edwards, the senior senator from that state, says Marlowe and his ilk should be "cut off at the knees."
Howard Dean decries the "army" of lobbyists in Washington and tells his supporters, "Only you have the power to send those lobbyists home."
Sen. John Kerry vows to "free our government from the grip of the lobbyists." He describes them like pests "scurrying around Capitol Hill" and says they "trip over themselves to fund the Bush-Cheney campaign."
The Washington lobbyist is the bogeyman of the 2004 Democratic campaign, accused of asking lawmakers for help and then rewarding them with big contributions.
There's only one problem, says Charles Lewis, the head of the Center for Public Integrity and author of The Buying of the President 2004: Everyone in politics works with lobbyists, and the presidential candidates have received tens of thousands of dollars from them over the years.
"It is disingenuous to the public and to voters (for candidates) to suggest they are not familiar with this culture," Lewis said.
Some lobbyists are miffed that they have become the villain of the presidential race.
"I was offended," said Deanna Gelak, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "The truth is that lobbying is an essential part of the political process, protected by the First Amendment."
Marlowe, who lobbies for beach towns around the country, was annoyed to hear Edwards attack his profession, especially because he has often worked with Edwards' office to help North Carolina beaches. "It's offensive to me when anybody _ be it an elected official or anybody _ attacks the lobbying profession," Marlowe said. "I think we do a good job as a whole."
Lobbyists _ Safire's Political Dictionary says the name comes from people who spoke to members of Parliament in the lobby beside the English House of Commons in the 1600s _ have long been portrayed as back-slapping scoundrels who manipulate lawmakers. The hallways outside Congress' tax-writing committees are known as "Gucci Gulch" because they are often filled with lobbyists wearing Gucci loafers or carrying Gucci handbags.
Attacking lobbyists is a ritual of American politics. It allows candidates to portray themselves as outsiders who want to shake up the status quo.
There are nearly 25,000 lobbyists in Washington, and they cover the political spectrum. They represent corporations, labor unions and environmental groups. There are lobbyists for Microsoft, Disney, the Sierra Club and manufacturers of potato chips.
Even candidate Wesley Clark has been a lobbyist. He represented Acxiom, a Little Rock, Ark., company that wanted to use its "data mining" services to help find terrorists in airline passenger lists. After Clark lobbied Vice President Dick Cheney and others, the company was granted a federal contract.
The candidates talk a good game against the lobbyists, but, in truth, they have worked with plenty over the years.
Athan Manuel, a lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group who specializes in energy and environmental issues, has worked with Kerry to promote laws that help the environment.
Manuel recalled a meeting where he and other environmental lobbyists talked with Kerry to plot opposition to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He said Kerry was "very strategic" and sought suggestions on which lawmakers they should try to persuade.
Manuel, whose group is not endorsing any candidate in the presidential race, has also met with Edwards. Manuel said he uses the same methods as corporate lobbyists, except he can't afford to give big campaign contributions or wear pricey suits.
"Everybody who works for the environmental side has one or two good sets of clothes, so we can pull it off for a day or two," he said. "But if members of Congress looked closely, they would see we always dress the same."
When Dean was governor of Vermont, he routinely worked with lobbyists on issues ranging from campaign finance reform to insurance laws. He recently hired a lobbyist as campaign manager.
Lewis said it was ironic that Edwards and Kerry were Washington insiders who were attacking lobbyists to sound like outsiders. Edwards has refused to take money from lobbyists but has accepted almost $80,000 from people working for Washington-based lobbying firms, Lewis said.
Kerry has raised more money from paid lobbyists than any other senator over the past 15 years. The 19-year Senate veteran has received nearly $640,000 from lobbyists, many representing telecommunications and financial companies with business before his committee, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the Massachusetts senator has often voted against the interests of his contributors. "Kerry has never been swayed by any donation on a vote. He consistently votes to protect consumers and workers."
Dean is drawing heavy financial support from two large labor unions that do their own lobbying. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' political action committee has spent more than $1.7-million on polling, ads and get-out-the-vote efforts. A Service Employees International Union PAC has spent close to $1-million.
Dean said he doesn't consider unions a special interest, and many of Kerry's donations are from business lobbyists.
Edwards, at a debate in New Hampshire Jan. 22, was asked by ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, "Is there anything intrinsically wrong with being a lobbyist?"
"No," Edwards replied. "There's something wrong with the impact that Washington lobbyists are having on our system of government."
Edwards has proposed banning campaign contributions from lobbyists, preventing them from taking government jobs that regulate their former industries for 12 months and requiring them to disclose meetings with government officials.
Lewis often criticizes the influence of lobbyists but says every group deserves to have a voice.
"I'm not antilobbyist _ my wife is a lobbyist," he said. (His wife Pamela Gilbert represents a law firm that opposes tort reform.) What bothers Lewis is when the process becomes lopsided and favors corporate interests.
"What I consider to be a distortion of democracy is when one side has 600 lobbyists and the other side has one," Lewis said.
_ Information from the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.