PROFILE : JAMES C. CORMAN : Lobbyist Savors Life With Family But Misses Congressional Career

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even now, nearly a decade after voters in his San Fernando Valley district abruptly ended his 20-year congressional career, James C. Corman still wears his regret on his well-tailored sleeve.

"It's just awful to be doing something you love and you think you do reasonably well, and it's all gone in one election and you can't do anything about it," Corman recalled recently over breakfast amid the leather furnishings and cherry walls of the sumptuous office where he works as a Washington lobbyist. "It's gone."

He would mount an autumnal comeback in a minute if he could regain the coveted seniority that made him a leading Democratic advocate for the poor and disadvantaged on the influential House Ways and Means Committee, which crafts national tax legislation.

"He's probably one of the few people I know who isn't happier in private life than he was in public life," said Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), a former colleague and close friend of Corman's. "He's a bleeding heart; he's an idealist."

But make no mistake: Corman, 68, has found there is life after Congress since Republican Bobbi Fiedler rode the crest of the Valley's anti-school-busing movement in 1980 to oust him by a mere 752 votes out of 153,770 cast.

The past 8 1/2 years as a successful Capitol Hill lobbyist have provided the courtly lawyer with the income and time to do things with his youthful second family that a congressional schedule and salary would have vetoed.

"You ask Jim what time it is and he'll say, 'Let me tell you about Adam and Brian,' " Jacobs said, referring to Corman's sons, ages 10 and 9. "I've never seen a more devoted father."

Bereft of the power to shape public policy, Corman has been blessed with a new life of private prerogatives as his prime focus moved from the House to the home. But, dapper in monogrammed shirts, leather suspenders and wing-tipped shoes, the white-haired former resident of Van Nuys still frequents the Capitol's marble halls.

Like more than 80 former House members, Corman has cashed in on his contacts and knowledge of the institution and its issues, particularly often arcane tax matters handled by the Ways and Means Committee, on which he was the fourth-ranking member. He has made as much as $300,000 a year, five times his highest salary as a lawmaker (House pay is now $89,500 a year).

His lobbying business, Corman Law Offices, includes such clients as MCA; Tropicana Energy, a Texas-based ethanol manufacturer; shopping center magnate Guilford Glazer; the U. S. League of Savings Institutions, and the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. He has one partner, William Kirk, a Georgetown Law School graduate and ex-counsel to the Ways and Means public assistance and unemployment subcommittee that Corman headed.

Their top-paying client is the National Structured Settlements Trade Assn., whose members negotiate with plaintiffs and defendants in personal-injury cases to stretch out payments through tax-free annuities or government bonds. They support laws permitting legal cases to be settled this way rather than requiring a lump-sum settlement.

Corman maintains that it is good public policy because victims are prevented from dissipating huge one-shot payments and then turning to the government for public assistance. But periodically he must beat back efforts by the Department of the Treasury, which is displeased about the loss of tax revenue from lump-sum payments, to change the law.

Corman and Kirk recently agreed to merge Jan. 1 with Silverstein & Mullens, a prominent Washington tax law firm. This will give the two partners additional support services and potentially higher income. Otherwise, Corman said, "it will not change the nature of what I do."

Just as he was respected for his integrity, intelligence and diligence as a legislator, Corman is widely regarded as a savvy, well-prepared and unfailingly gracious lobbyist.

"I don't think he's done anything to call that earlier reputation into question," said Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "I have never heard anyone say, 'Look what this hypocrite's doing' or that he's sold his soul for something or traded his access for something that someone thought was appalling."

Such actions by others have prompted controversy on Capitol Hill over the so-called alumni lobby. House ethics rules impose virtually no restrictions on lobbying by former members (the Senate prohibits its ex-members from lobbying senators and aides for one year). Executive branch employees face much tougher revolving-door restrictions.

Ex-members have access that other lobbyists do not enjoy. They can roam the House floor, although they are forbidden from lobbying there, and can work out in the House gym.

"I never go on the House floor," Corman said, to avoid creating the appearance that he might be violating the rule even if he were there for other reasons. As for the gym, which he uses frequently, Corman said he often learns useful things there, but he maintains that the information is also available in many other places.

Other former members have drawn criticism by lobbying for interests they had opposed while in office. Corman has generally avoided that reputation, although he raised some eyebrows when he represented Texas Air Corp. President Frank C. Lorenzo in his hotly contested takeover of Continental Airlines.

Corman points out that some of his paying clients are fighting for socially responsible, if financially self-serving, goals. And many of his corporate patrons are merely battling other private interests without a public interest at stake. He's also done pro bono work for individuals who he feels have gotten a raw deal from the system.

Moreover, Corman has turned down or dropped clients when he was uneasy with their approach, possible conflicts of interest or their expectations about what he could do for them, said Ken Bowler, vice president of Pfizer and a former Corman associate. An example was the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which Corman stopped representing amid criticism of its high-pressure fund-raising methods and alarmist pronouncements.

Corman's success as an advocate starts with the expertise he acquired in the House on tax, health and welfare issues. It also includes long hours--he's often in the office by 6:30 a.m.--and the thoroughness and persuasive skills honed during two decades in Congress. Then there is his knowledge of Ways and Means Committee members, staff and process.

"You know the idiosyncrasies of various members," said Fiedler, who left Congress in 1987 after an unsuccessful U. S. Senate bid and returned to Northridge, where she does consulting and lobbying. "You know how to push their hot buttons by couching an issue in a way that they would be sympathetic."

Corman's relationship with Bowler illustrates one advantage of his previous position. Bowler, who was staff director of Corman's public assistance subcommittee, joined him when he started his own lobbying firm. Later, he returned to the Ways and Means Committee as deputy director and, eventually, director, where he was a valuable contact for Corman.

"Jim combines the personal contacts that he had as a congressman, as a well-known political figure in California, with the work habits of a new guy on the block: the extra effort, the tremendous consideration to people in an office, the kinds of things that make everyone have a very warm feeling toward him," said Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who campaigned door-to-door for Corman as a UCLA law student and now represents much of Corman's former district.

"He's not caught up in his status as a distinguished 20-year veteran of Congress," he said.

Indeed. Less than a year after Fiedler had waged a tough, often personal campaign to oust him, Corman visited her on behalf of MCA.

"It was obviously very difficult for him," Fiedler recalled. "He was sweating very profusely and was extremely tense. I understood that and did everything I could to make it as comfortable for him as possible."

Corman, who refuses to say anything negative about Fiedler, had a trace of bitterness in his voice when he recalled the aftermath of their meeting. "She called my client," he said, "and told them that was a stupid thing for them to do."

Corman also participates in the campaign contribution game, considered by many a prerequisite of gaining access. He and 10 to 15 colleagues hold 10 breakfasts a year with various members of Congress. Each lobbyist contributes $500 to the visiting lawmaker's campaign.

"There's nobody I would invite in here or any of the guests would invite that we couldn't get an appointment with," Corman said, downplaying the significance of the contributions. "People we invite are people we want to see get reelected."

Corman said he also makes personal contributions, but strictly to liberal Democrats, and he remains committed to that political agenda. As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Corman helped pass landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. He served on the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, after the urban riots of the late '60s.

It was the volatile race issue that proved his undoing in 1980, when Fiedler mobilized increasingly conservative Valley voters behind the effort to end court-ordered busing to integrate the Los Angeles school system. Corman backed busing as a temporary, last-resort measure.

"Dear friends told him he should trim his sails," Jacobs said. "He thought it would be habit-forming."

Jacobs is among those allies who angrily say that then-President Jimmy Carter sealed Corman's doom when he conceded defeat to Ronald Reagan before the polls had closed in California, causing some disheartened West Coast Democrats to simply stay home. Corman refuses to blame Carter.

"I stood and yelled at the television, 'No, you can't do this!' " recalled Nancy Malone, Corman's wife. "I knew that early concession meant a lot of people wouldn't vote."

What made the defeat particularly painful was that, in the calculus of congressional power, Corman had really arrived only a few years before he was ousted. Only four years earlier, he had gained a much-desired spot on a conference committee that make critical decisions reconciling the differences in House and Senate versions of major bills.

For Corman, this calculus also ruled out a comeback in 1982 when redistricting created a new Valley district that included most of Corman's former East Valley constituents and moved Fiedler into solidly Republican territory. A return would have left Corman at the bottom of the seniority ladder.

So, this son of a Kansas miner, who had known poverty as a Depression-era youth and worked his way through UCLA and the USC School of Law, turned his energies to making money and enjoying a new family.

"When I went to Congress, I was driving a 5-year-old car, I owed $25,000 on my house and my kids were 7 and 12," Corman said. "When I left Congress 20 years later, I owed $50,000 on my house, I was driving a 14-year-old car, my kid was 1 and my wife was pregnant."

Today, Corman drives a 1986 Cadillac Cimarron, and home is a majestic French Colonial on three grandly wooded acres in affluent suburban McLean in northern Virginia. Life is filled with the hurly-burly of his boys' hockey and football practices, back-yard camping and family hikes, and museum outings.

Malone, an attractive, vivacious accountant who in 1978 became Corman's fourth wife, is 24 years his junior. She was married once previously.

Corman also has two children, Mary Anne, 41, and James C. (Chuck) Jr., 36, from his first marriage to Virginia Little, who died of cancer in 1966. His second and third marriages ended in divorce.

Corman delights in round two of fatherhood. He drives the early-morning car pool. He and Adam are surveying the world's scariest roller coasters (so far, Knott's Berry Farm is No. 1). The family throws a renowned annual Christmas party for 250 to 300 friends and acquaintances.

"I think it's been a tremendous compensation for the loss of his job," Bowler said of Corman's second family.

"Life is very complex, and he can say very honestly that he thoroughly enjoys having the time and the money to do the things with Nancy and the children that his current job allows him to do. And he can still say, 'I want my job back on the Ways and Means Committee.' "

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
88°