Buddy Jones, 54, Austin
Rusty Kelley, 57, Austin
Bill Messer, 54, Belton
Mike Toomey, 53, Austin
A Nineteenth-Century Washington correspondent once described the lobby as a monster that inhabited the U.S. Capitol: “Winding in and out through the long, devious basement passage, crawling through the corridors, trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room, at last it lies stretched at full length on the floor of Congress—this dazzling reptile, this huge, scaly serpent.” People who view politics from the outside, and even some who view it from the inside, see the lobby in exactly this way—as the unsavory nexus of money, influence, and public policy. And yet the First Amendment places lobbying on the same pedestal as freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
To be sure, lobbying will never be free of stench. Like prostitution, with which it is sometimes compared, lobbying is a contender for the title of the oldest profession. But the most powerful lobbyists are among the smartest, hardest-working, straightest-shooting people in Austin. They’re powerful because they can pass or kill bills that are worth millions of dollars to interest groups. Advocating for legislation sought by their clients is only part of their job; they are generous with advice, gossip, insight, friendship, and campaign cash.
None more than Buddy Jones, who had a brief career as a legislator—one term in the House, which ended with a losing race for the state Senate in 1982. The defeat was the best thing that ever happened to him. He returned to the House as executive assistant for then-Speaker Gib Lewis and began dispensing the favors and cementing the friendships that have catapulted him to the top tier of the Third House. His client list is said to be the best in town: AT&T, Alcoa, the Children’s Hospital Association of Texas, Continental Airlines, Farmers Insurance, General Motors, the Dallas Cowboys, H-E-B, Wal-Mart, banks, school districts. He broke new ground in 1998 by co-founding (with Bill Miller) HillCo Partners, a talent-laden consulting firm that does issue campaigns, lobbying, and public relations. Often lampooned by jealous colleagues for his ingratiating style, Jones is known for greetings like “You’re a great American” (to men) and “Have I told you lately how much I love you?” (to women).
Rusty Kelley is described by a word one seldom hears spoken of lobbyists: “beloved.” Many a lawmaker thinks of him as a best friend. He has a humble, self-deprecating style that is totally nonthreatening and ever so persuasive. Don’t be fooled into underestimating him—not that anyone does. He learned the ways of the Legislature as sergeant-at-arms of the House in the seventies and later as executive assistant to Speaker Billy Clayton. He earned his lobbying spurs by spearheading Ross Perot’s education reforms through the Legislature in 1984 and has been at the top of his profession ever since. Now with Public Strategies, his clients include American Airlines, Dell Computer, Dow Chemical, General Electric, General Motors, billboard interests, Southwestern Bell, Coca-Cola, the Basses, and some big-name Texans who want to keep their hand in what is going on in Austin, including Ross Perot Jr. and Peter O’Donnell. One of his coups was passing a bill that established a taxing district for the Texas Rangers baseball club and its managing general partner, and if you have to be told who that was, chances are you don’t know much about power in Texas.
Bill Messer has the best connection in the Capitol—no one outside Tom Craddick’s immediate family is closer to the Speaker of the House—and unsurpassed institutional knowledge. The latter he learned not only from his tour as a master legislator in the eighties but also from long conversations with his late father-in-law, petrochemicals lobbyist Harry Whitworth, one of the Big Four lobbyists of the fifties and sixties. Today Messer represents Whitworth’s old organization, the Texas Chemical Council, as well as State Farm, IBM, Liberty Mutual Insurance, McDonald’s, Union Pacific, the Texas Hospital Association, Southwestern Bell, and the redoubtable Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which—with Messer calling the signals and Craddick’s strong support—successfully backed sweeping pro-business changes in Texas tort law. Messer would really be sitting pretty had his longtime friend John Sharp, a Democrat, been elected lieutenant governor in 2002, but when Republican David Dewhurst prevailed instead, Messer couldn’t maximize his effectiveness in the Senate.
Mike Toomey doesn’t have a very impressive client list, according to the December reports at the Texas Ethics Commission. Just wait, just wait. Toomey had an immensely successful lobbying practice (led by tort reform clients) before he sold it to Messer in 2002, clearing the way for him to become chief of staff to his close friend Governor Rick Perry. He was positioned perfectly to fight for the toughest possible tort reform package, which had been a cause of his since he was a Republican legislator in the eighties. A self-described staunch economic conservative, Toomey didn’t advocate anything he hadn’t favored for years, and yet the idea of a lobbyist going into the governor’s office and taking stands that greatly benefited his former clients raised a lot of eyebrows. His return to lobbying for the 2005 session has raised a lot of eyebrows as well, and the eyes under those eyebrows are looking to see whether some of Toomey’s grateful former clients will soon become his present clients.
THE LOYAL OPPOSITION
Rodney Ellis, 50, Houston
Royce West, 52, Dallas
SOME FOLKS INVOLVED in politics would rather lose loudly than win quietly; they measure victory in volume rather than votes. Senators Rodney Ellis and Royce West are just the opposite: liberal Democrats who win by working behind the scenes with the GOP majority while remaining true to their principles. As for losing, it’s hard to say how they react, because it so seldom happens. Session after session, they’re the most effective Democrats in the Legislature. But they don’t operate as a