The Capitol Gang

They’re the most important players at the Legislature: Meet a dozen lobbyists who give Texas the business.

February 1999By Comments

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 of lobbyist, but this physically imposing former Baylor University basketball player and chairman of the House Calendars and Ways and Means committees has made a smooth segue from insider to supplicant. A fierce competitor, the 53-year-old still knows the plays and uses them all. Last session, he was hired to kill a bill and did everything he could to succeed. He didn’t—but after the bill passed, whom did the sponsor spy coming out of the governor’s office? Schlueter, like a desperate shooter hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer, had been lobbying for a veto. The man just doesn’t give up.

Best Tightrope Act: Mignon McGarry. Consider this insider’s analysis of what it’s like for women at the Capitol: “It’s really hard for women to be effective in the lobby. You’ve got to be pushy, and if a woman is too pushy, she’s a bitch. Flirting is no good, because then you’re a slut. You can try to be a friendly flirt, but then you have to worry about how far to take it without being seen as a slut.” McGarry, 41, a former Senate staffer, has learned to stand up for her clients without alienating opponents. Most women lobbyists work for law firms or under the aegis of a hired gun, but McGarry is the first woman to establish her own practice serving big players like Houston Industries, PepsiCo, and Houghton Mifflin. It’s all the more impressive considering that, as one lawmaker puts it, “She started with less than nothing, having worked for Jim Hightower,” referring to the politically unpopular former agriculture commissioner. Insiders say she earned her success the old-fashioned way: through hard work. They also credit her winning combination of good temperament and good judgment.

The Wise Man: Gene Fondren. If Martians landed at the Capitol, approached one of the guys in suits talking on a cell phone, and said, “Take me to your leader,” they would no doubt find themselves being introduced to the president of the Texas Automobile Dealers Association. A distinguished, silver-haired gentleman with chiseled features, 71-year-old Fondren looks the part of the lobby’s undisputed leader and elder statesman. Why did the blue law repeal require automobile dealers alone to remain closed on either Saturday or Sunday? Who is the lobbyist who speaks for business when tax issues arise? If you answered “Gene Fondren” to these questions, then you understand the far-reaching effect one man can have on public policy. Like Buddy Jones, Fondren benefits from having a strong client base: Car dealers are influential in their communities, and he has helped them become even more so.

The William T. Sherman Lobbyist: Mike Toomey. As with the infamous Union general, history books will not be kind to this former House member and chief of staff for Governor William P. Clements, Jr., for employing a scorched-earth strategy to accomplish his goals. As the lead lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), Toomey threatened, cajoled, and ultimately defeated lawmakers who stood in his way. Cynics suggest that the momentum of tort reform had more to do with the lavish campaign contributions handed out by TLR’s mastermind, Richard W. “Dick” Weekley. But 48-year-old Toomey, an intense and cerebral individual in a profession that rewards the gregarious, has found that aggressive tactics sometimes prevail. He is on the cutting edge of the growing Republican influence in the Legislature and will benefit from his close relationship with Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. Unlike other lobbyists, who steer away from pure political issues, Toomey nurtures his Republican ties to the benefit of clients like TLR, AT&T, Southern Union Gas, and Corrections Corporation of America.

Best Lobbyist for the Little Guy: Dick Lavine. Public interest lobbyists can effect change in two ways: They can influence legislation or they can influence ideas. Lavine, 51, the senior fiscal analyst of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, has raised the level of debate on behalf of low- and moderate-income Texans in the Legislature. In today’s pro-business climate, do-gooder lobbyists representing environmentalists and consumers have a tough time being heard. Part of the problem is self-inflicted: Many lawmakers complain that the public-interest lobby endlessly opposes, never content to make small gains through compromises. Not so with Lavine, whose group was founded by the Benedictine Sisters and is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation and others. He got high marks for his performance during last session’s tax debate, when he presented lawmakers with concrete data on the effects of tax proposals on low-income Texans. And he didn’t just oppose the bill; he proposed alternatives that are still being discussed. Other public-interest lobbyists can probably claim more concrete legislative accomplishments, but Lavine’s overall impact is greater. He sets out to change the way people think—and he succeeds.

Best Friends in High Places: Cliff Johnson. The witty former House member from Palestine has a client list that resembles a salvage yard of legislative wrecks: gaming interests, polluters, and the City of Austin. But his prestige should grow this session now that his old roommate from his days in the House, Rick Perry, handles the gavel in the Senate. Because 48-year-old Johnson represents lottery contractor G-Tech, he can’t spend money entertaining legislators or contribute to their campaigns, so he works double time at his relationships. “He’s just so darn nice,” says one staff member. Adds a top lawmaker: “I don’t know anyone in the Legislature who doesn’t like Cliff.”

Best All-Star Team: John W. Fainter, Jr., Bruce Gibson, and Curtis Seidlits. The state’s investor-owned utilities haven’t left electric deregulation to chance. The utilities coalition hired Fainter, 59, a respected former Secretary of State, as its lead lobbyist, while Houston Industries and Texas Utilities recruited 45-year-old Gibson and 45-year-old Seidlits, respectively (both are former House members and powerful committee chairmen).

Best Strategist: Kim Ross. As a onetime associate of Gene Fondren’s, he learned at the feet of the master—and it shows in his successful efforts on behalf of the Texas Medical Association. When Ross, 47, was hired by the TMA, it had little influence, since its doctor-members simply didn’t understand politics. He spent endless hours training them in the nuances of the Legislature, like knowing when to play smart and rise above ideology. Ross recognized that under managed care, doctors and their traditional opponents, the trial lawyers, shared a common enemy: insurance companies. So he forged an unlikely alliance with the trial lawyers, a brilliant move that paid off when Texas became the first state in the nation to make managed-care plans liable for medical malpractice. During an era of tort reform, passage of a bill that established new grounds for lawsuits was nothing short of a miracle. Ross has a reputation as a Democrat, and influential right-wingers are always urging the largely conservative doctors to fire him. They’d be crazy to do so.

Patricia Kilday Hart has coauthored Texas Monthly’s articles on the best and worst legislators since 1989.

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 of lobbyist, but this physically imposing former Baylor University basketball player and chairman of the House Calendars and Ways and Means committees has made a smooth segue from insider to supplicant. A fierce competitor, the 53-year-old still knows the plays and uses them all. Last session, he was hired to kill a bill and did everything he could to succeed. He didn’t—but after the bill passed, whom did the sponsor spy coming out of the governor’s office? Schlueter, like a desperate shooter hitting a three-pointer at the buzzer, had been lobbying for a veto. The man just doesn’t give up.

Best Tightrope Act: Mignon McGarry. Consider this insider’s analysis of what it’s like for women at the Capitol: “It’s really hard for women to be effective in the lobby. You’ve got to be pushy, and if a woman is too pushy, she’s a bitch. Flirting is no good, because then you’re a slut. You can try to be a friendly flirt, but then you have to worry about how far to take it without being seen as a slut.” McGarry, 41, a former Senate staffer, has learned to stand up for her clients without alienating opponents. Most women lobbyists work for law firms or under the aegis of a hired gun, but McGarry is the first woman to establish her own practice serving big players like Houston Industries, PepsiCo, and Houghton Mifflin. It’s all the more impressive considering that, as one lawmaker puts it, “She started with less than nothing, having worked for Jim Hightower,” referring to the politically unpopular former agriculture commissioner. Insiders say she earned her success the old-fashioned way: through hard work. They also credit her winning combination of good temperament and good judgment.

The Wise Man: Gene Fondren. If Martians landed at the Capitol, approached one of the guys in suits talking on a cell phone, and said, “Take me to your leader,” they would no doubt find themselves being introduced to the president of the Texas Automobile Dealers Association. A distinguished, silver-haired gentleman with chiseled features, 71-year-old Fondren looks the part of the lobby’s undisputed leader and elder statesman. Why did the blue law repeal require automobile dealers alone to remain closed on either Saturday or Sunday? Who is the lobbyist who speaks for business when tax issues arise? If you answered “Gene Fondren” to these questions, then you understand the far-reaching effect one man can have on public policy. Like Buddy Jones, Fondren benefits from having a strong client base: Car dealers are influential in their communities, and he has helped them become even more so.

The William T. Sherman Lobbyist: Mike Toomey. As with the infamous Union general, history books will not be kind to this former House member and chief of staff for Governor William P. Clements, Jr., for employing a scorched-earth strategy to accomplish his goals. As the lead lobbyist for Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), Toomey threatened, cajoled, and ultimately defeated lawmakers who stood in his way. Cynics suggest that the momentum of tort reform had more to do with the lavish campaign contributions handed out by TLR’s mastermind, Richard W. “Dick” Weekley. But 48-year-old Toomey, an intense and cerebral individual in a profession that rewards the gregarious, has found that aggressive tactics sometimes prevail. He is on the cutting edge of the growing Republican influence in the Legislature and will benefit from his close relationship with Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry. Unlike other lobbyists, who steer away from pure political issues, Toomey nurtures his Republican ties to the benefit of clients like TLR, AT&T, Southern Union Gas, and Corrections Corporation of America.

Best Lobbyist for the Little Guy: Dick Lavine. Public interest lobbyists can effect change in two ways: They can influence legislation or they can influence ideas. Lavine, 51, the senior fiscal analyst of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, has raised the level of debate on behalf of low- and moderate-income Texans in the Legislature. In today’s pro-business climate, do-gooder lobbyists representing environmentalists and consumers have a tough time being heard. Part of the problem is self-inflicted: Many lawmakers complain that the public-interest lobby endlessly opposes, never content to make small gains through compromises. Not so with Lavine, whose group was founded by the Benedictine Sisters and is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation and others. He got high marks for his performance during last session’s tax debate, when he presented lawmakers with concrete data on the effects of tax proposals on low-income Texans. And he didn’t just oppose the bill; he proposed alternatives that are still being discussed. Other public-interest lobbyists can probably claim more concrete legislative accomplishments, but Lavine’s overall impact is greater. He sets out to change the way people think—and he succeeds.

Best Friends in High Places: Cliff Johnson. The witty former House member from Palestine has a client list that resembles a salvage yard of legislative wrecks: gaming interests, polluters, and the City of Austin. But his prestige should grow this session now that his old roommate from his days in the House, Rick Perry, handles the gavel in the Senate. Because 48-year-old Johnson represents lottery contractor G-Tech, he can’t spend money entertaining legislators or contribute to their campaigns, so he works double time at his relationships. “He’s just so darn nice,” says one staff member. Adds a top lawmaker: “I don’t know anyone in the Legislature who doesn’t like Cliff.”

Best All-Star Team: John W. Fainter, Jr., Bruce Gibson, and Curtis Seidlits. The state’s investor-owned utilities haven’t left electric deregulation to chance. The utilities coalition hired Fainter, 59, a respected former Secretary of State, as its lead lobbyist, while Houston Industries and Texas Utilities recruited 45-year-old Gibson and 45-year-old Seidlits, respectively (both are former House members and powerful committee chairmen).

Best Strategist: Kim Ross. As a onetime associate of Gene Fondren’s, he learned at the feet of the master—and it shows in his successful efforts on behalf of the Texas Medical Association. When Ross, 47, was hired by the TMA, it had little influence, since its doctor-members simply didn’t understand politics. He spent endless hours training them in the nuances of the Legislature, like knowing when to play smart and rise above ideology. Ross recognized that under managed care, doctors and their traditional opponents, the trial lawyers, shared a common enemy: insurance companies. So he forged an unlikely alliance with the trial lawyers, a brilliant move that paid off when Texas became the first state in the nation to make managed-care plans liable for medical malpractice. During an era of tort reform, passage of a bill that established new grounds for lawsuits was nothing short of a miracle. Ross has a reputation as a Democrat, and influential right-wingers are always urging the largely conservative doctors to fire him. They’d be crazy to do so.

Patricia Kilday Hart has coauthored Texas Monthly’s articles on the best and worst legislators since 1989.

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