Lobbying & Influence

Lobbying lawmakers with a personal touch

Tess Hanson works with Michael London, 18, during a Challenge Sports basketball class at the Orangevale Community Center on Sunday. Michael’s father, Carl London, background center, is a Sacramento lobbyist.
Tess Hanson works with Michael London, 18, during a Challenge Sports basketball class at the Orangevale Community Center on Sunday. Michael’s father, Carl London, background center, is a Sacramento lobbyist. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The day before Gov. Jerry Brown was sworn in for his fourth term in office earlier this month, a Sacramento lobbyist took to Twitter to launch his first volley of the legislative year:

“Hope Gov’s Budget addresses persons with Dev Disabilities living in our communities. Today we spend $500 Mil to keep people in institutions,” wrote Carl London, who goes by @calobbyman on the social media network.

London is a regular around the Capitol. It’s not uncommon to see him buttonholing lawmakers in the hallway on behalf of the carmakers, record companies and physical therapists that make up the bulk of his client list.

But as the Jan. 4 tweet demonstrates, London also lobbies for another cause – one that hits close to home, where he lives with his 18-year-old son Michael, who is blind and developmentally delayed. London represents the California Disability Services Association, which provides job training, transportation and other assistance to nearly 300,000 disabled Californians who live in private homes.

So when London lobbies legislators for funding to support those programs, he comes at it from an unusually personal perspective.

“There are times when I’ve chosen to just testify as a parent ... And sometimes I’ll mix it in with my testimony on behalf of the client,” he said. “I’m a pretty zealous lobbyist anyway, on all the subjects I pursue. But on this one I certainly know it from a different level.”

London is one of a handful of Sacramento lobbyists who use their powers of persuasion to advance personal causes.

Many of them make their living advocating for the corporations, unions and Indian tribes that are huge political donors and pour millions of dollars each year into lobbying California lawmakers. But when a piece of legislation hits a chord – concerning a medical condition, for example, or a childhood trauma – these lobbyists use their connections and savoir faire to shape public policy with a personal touch. Some of them deploy their services for free, while others are hired to advocate on a personal cause.

In recent years, a union lobbyist whose daughter has epilepsy went to bat for a bill to allow school employees to administer anti-seizure medication. A corporate lobbyist whose infant son died from SIDS lobbied for funding to train emergency workers about the condition that leaves babies dead in their cribs. And a lobbyist who represents gambling tribes and cigar shops shared her own story of childhood sexual abuse in support of measures to extend the length of time survivors have to seek justice against their abusers.

“I made it very clear it had nothing to do with my clients – it had everything to do with me,” lobbyist Paula Treat said of her work on the child abuse bill. “Every so often I do a pro bono just because I believe in it.”

Sen. Jim Beall carried two bills on the subject of childhood sex abuse last year – one that would give victims more time to seek civil damages, which Brown vetoed, and a separate bill to increase the criminal statute of limitations against perpetrators, which Brown signed. Beall, a San Jose Democrat, said Treat was an asset in a tough fight against the Catholic church and a coalition of nonprofit groups that opposed his legislation.

“She had her personal connections with legislators, and having legislators hear (from) somebody they saw on a day-to-day basis … was very effective,” he said.

There’s nothing inappropriate about professional persuaders offering their skills to advance a personal agenda, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School with expertise in political ethics.

But the phenomenon is “part of a bigger story about lobbyists having a seat at that the table that the rest of us just don’t have,” she said. In many cases, campaign donations from lobbyists’ clients help get them that seat at the table, creating the potential for what Levinson called a “symbiotic relationship.”

“I wish for a world in which it’s not just the lobbyists who can bring their pet projects to the legislators,” Levinson said.

Scores of ordinary Californians trek to the Capitol every year to weigh in on bills that touch their lives. They rally outside the building, testify in committee hearings and request meetings with their representatives to share the stories that fuel their positions on budget and policy matters.

But those advocates don’t have the deep-rooted relationships that professional lobbyists have honed during years of meetings in the Capitol and schmoozing at campaign fundraisers. Nor do they have the staying power.

“They’re going to be gone tomorrow. They’re going to be on a plane and fly back home. Then in the dark of night somewhere in the legislative process the thing is just going to quietly go away,” said labor lobbyist Scott Wetch, who volunteered to advocate for a bill he thought would help kids like his daughter, who has epilepsy.

“With me I was in the hallways every single day. I was in the committee hearings every day, so I was a constant reminder to them. It made a big impact.”

Wetch was in an odd spot pushing for the bill, carried by the Senate’s Republican leader, to allow school employees to administer anti-seizure medication. He typically represents organized labor, but crossed unions representing nurses and school employees that opposed the bill. Even though his own daughter would not be affected by the legislation because she goes to private school, Wetch said he told lawmakers about her seizures on the playground to illustrate the impact the bill could have on other children.

“Scott was able to tell his story,” said Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, who carried the bill in 2011. “So in some ways his professional hat was off, his personal Dad hat was on.”

Legislation carried by Republicans frequently meets an early death in the Capitol dominated by Democrats. And Wetch brought more than just a compelling personal tale. He also had the ear of many Democrats who might have otherwise been reluctant to vote for a Republican bill opposed by organized labor.

“Given his regular paying job, he had a lot of relationships that are important in helping to get the votes,” Huff said.

Having a lobbyist on board who holds relationships across the aisle also helped former Sen. Joe Simitian when he carried legislation in 2012 to require that medical practices notify patients when they have dense breast tissue, a condition that makes it harder to detect early signs of cancer in a mammogram.

The idea for the bill came to Simitian from a constituent, he said, who had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer despite several years of clean mammograms. It turned out she had dense breast tissue, he said, which had masked early signs of the illness. Treat said she advocated for the bill because she has the same condition and believed women should be informed so they can seek alternative screening methods.

“I didn’t just testify in committee. I went around and talked to each of the members,” Treat said.

“What most average citizens coming up to testify don’t realize is that just testifying when there’s 100 bills up that day – it’s really hard to get noticed. But if you’re in their face a lot … it makes a difference.”

Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, said Treat’s personal tale helped persuade Republicans that his bill was worth supporting, despite opposition from the powerful doctors lobby.

“Paula was our secret weapon,” he said. “She had longstanding and good relationships with Republican members, not all of whom I knew or had worked with. In that sense she was particularly helpful.”

Treat brought another asset to the campaign for the bill, Simitian said: her uninhibited, plainspoken style.

“She would talk to these members in a way that I just couldn’t,” he said. “She showed up at a committee hearing with a cap on that said, ‘Save second base.’ ”

Humor isn’t the only way to make a policy issue personal. Heartstrings can work too.

Barry Brokaw was a staff member to a state legislator in the 1980s when he lost a new baby to sudden infant death syndrome, known as SIDS. He used his position in the Capitol to help craft a package of laws to improve services to families whose babies died from the syndrome, increase education about it for emergency workers and ensure autopsies are completed to determine the infants’ cause of death.

Now a lobbyist, he weighs in periodically when proposals come up to weaken the programs he helped create. In 2012, he prepared this testimony to deliver to a budget committee: “I am before you not in my role as a professional advocate, but as the father of an apparently healthy little boy named Kevin, my second son, who in November of 1988, took his late morning nap at his baby sitter’s house and never awoke. Kevin was 3 1/2 months old.”

Another former legislative staff member who has become a lobbyist for a personal cause is Rick Rollens, who left his position as the Senate’s top administrator in 1996 after his son was diagnosed with autism. Rollens went on to briefly work for a corporate lobbying firm, then launched his own practice focusing entirely on clients that support people with autism and other developmental conditions.

“Clearly if I was chasing the dollars I could have … made a lot more money and had a lot more fame. But the folks I represent are in great need of representation in Sacramento,” he said.

What motivates him to do the work?

“It’s easy,” Rollens said. “It’s the love of my son.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

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