IN JANUARY OF EACH ODD-NUMBERED YEAR, the Texas Constitution summons the Legislature into session for 140 days. And so, by the time you read this, the most powerful men and women in Texas will be hard at work in Austin. I’m talking, of course, about lobbyists, the anonymous but elite group of citizens who set the agenda for state government and sometimes even write the laws that our senators and representatives vote on.
To most people, the term “lobbyist” conjures a picture of a backslapper who trades cigars and cash for favors on behalf of shady special interests. The reality isn’t so cartoonish: While lobbyists represent clients and, well, lobby on their behalf, the best ones do so in an honest and forthright manner, and they’re viewed with respect inside the Capitol. In fact, they’re an essential element of the legislative process, providing critical information about the impact of proposed laws to lawmakers who are squeezed for time. Lobbyists explain what a bill is designed to do, the public-policy arguments for and against it, and why their side is right. Along the way they employ every conceivable method of persuasion. They shamelessly flatter legislators. They befriend newcomers by offering political counsel, social introductions to Capitol veterans, and guidance on tricky procedural issues. They put on businesslike presentations that appeal to reason and intellect. And, of course, they exert pressure on elected officials by marshaling the support of voters back home.
Not long ago such influence peddling fell to just a few men: the directors of trade associations representing industries like the railroads, chemical production, and oil and gas. But in the late 1970’s, Jack Gullahorn, a former executive assistant to Speaker of the House Billy Clayton, reinvented lobbying by hiring himself out to a dozen or so individual companies. His spectacular success ushered in the era of the hired-gun lobbyist and inspired hundreds of wannabes to set up practices representing not just single special interests but entire laundry lists of clients seeking help or protection from the state. The profession underwent another radical change in 1992, when the Legislature imposed tight controls on expenditures by lobbyists, bringing an end to the marathon golf games and late nights awash in liquor. (As is often the case with such reforms, the cure was worse than the disease. Money is more important than ever, in the much more costly guise of campaign contributions. Lobbyists whose clients give in great amounts to political candidates get their phone calls answered first.)
These days the “lobby” refers to the trade association representatives, lawyers, corporate executives, and public-interest types who try to influence legislation by hanging out at committee hearings and, yes, in the actual lobbies outside the House and the Senate. Incredibly, there should be more than 1,500 lobbyists registered with the state by the end of the session. Many are former legislators or staffers who are in the game for the adrenaline rush of politics—not to mention the six-figure fees.
Who are the most important lobbyists? To find out, we interviewed top lawmakers and their aides and collected the names that came up over and over. Because fortunes rise and fall, we picked people with power now—that is, after the 1998 election. We chose experts on wide-ranging issues who serve clients across the spectrum. We chose political animals who know legislative rules inside and out. And we chose effective communicators who don’t waste a lawmaker’s precious time.
Our list includes lobbyists of varying income, style, and ideology. (Most, as it happens, are white men, though the influence of minority and women lobbyists is growing as the composition of the Legislature moves more in the direction of our diverse population.) Some are well-liked; some are controversial. What they all have in common, though, is an ability to get things done for their clients—and, sometimes, for Texas too.
Best Client List: Neal T. “Buddy” Jones. Literally and figuratively, this 48-year-old former state representative and chief of staff for House Speaker Gib Lewis is the Neiman Marcus lobbyist at the Capitol, charging designer prices for custom-tailored services. His client list reads like a glitzy catalogue: Besides NM, others who will rely on his counsel this session include Fort Worth’s Bass brothers, the Dallas Cowboys, Microsoft, the Houston Rockets, AT&T, and Continental Airlines. Jones recently expanded his practice by joining forces with public relations guru Bill Miller. Detractors pose the chicken-and-egg question about Jones’s reputation: Did the Basses hire him because he’s influential, or is he influential because he represents the Basses? The lines blur, especially since Jones delivers campaign contributions for many of his well-heeled clients. Critics also suggest that he may become a victim of his own success, tangled in conflicts of interest within his burgeoning client list. One sign of his power: He’s the target of jealousy and gossip. Last fall the tax appraisal of his new mansion was anonymously faxed to Capitol insiders.
The Good Ol’ Boy: Russell T. “Rusty” Kelley. A former head sergeant at arms of the House and an executive assistant to House Speaker Billy Clayton, he’s the type of guy who sends birthday cards to lawmakers—even after they’ve left office. In a business dominated by big egos, Kelley, 51, stands out by not taking himself too seriously, though he has carried the ball for such blue-chip interests as the Texas Rangers baseball team, Dell Computer, American Airlines, and H. Ross Perot. Once, he watched from the second floor of the rotunda as schoolteachers diligently arranged a couple hundred visiting children against the wall on the first floor, then created pandemonium by throwing down a handful of coins. Don’t be fooled by his prankster, frat-boy exterior: Without peer as a strategist, he knows whom to ask for a vote—and whom not to ask. A powerful House member recalls asking Kelley why he hadn’t contacted him on a closely decided issue. Kelley’s reply: “You couldn’t vote for it.”
Best Rebound: Stan Schlueter. Once-powerful legislators often find it difficult to accept the humble status