‘Tea party’ freshmen embrace status quo
?The new class of Republican lawmakers who charged into office promising to shun the ways of Washington officially arrives on Capitol Hill on Wednesday. ?But even as they publicly bash the capital’s culture, many have quietly begun to embrace it.
Several freshmen have hired lobbyists — the ultimate Washington insiders — to lead their congressional staffs. In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s swearing-in, dozens of the newcomers joined other lawmakers in turning to lobbyists for campaign cash.? And on Wednesday, congressional offices will be packed with lawmakers’ relatives, friends, constituents and lobbyists, all invited to celebrate the new Congress. ?
This picture of business-as-usual Washington clashes with the campaign rhetoric of many newcomers, some who were propelled by support from the anti-Washington “tea party” movement. It also muddles the image House Republicans hoped to project as they took the helm this week. In contrast to the public celebration thrown by Democrat Nancy Pelosi when she became speaker four years ago, incoming House Speaker John A. Boehner has tried to strike a subdued and earnest note as he takes up the gavel.
So it raised eyebrows Tuesday when several House freshmen held a fundraiser in a swanky Washington hotel. The event, organized in part by California Rep.-elect Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), stood out as the flashiest celebration of the new Congress.
“It’s important. Without money, the machine doesn’t move,” said Javier Ortiz, a GOP strategist and fundraiser, about the week’s schedule of fundraisers and other events. “No one should be surprised that newly elected or long-serving members ask interested constituents and others to support their campaigns by making donations.”
Still, House leaders did not celebrate the Tuesday night fundraiser at the W hotel. Boehner declined to attend. The offices of incoming Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Majority Whip-elect Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) did not respond to requests for comments on the event, though one of the hosts said McCarthy had committed to attend.
A thumping techno beat filled the barroom lobby of the W hotel as guests entered for what was billed as a welcome party for the incoming freshman class. The fundraising event was hosted by the New Majority PAC, a committee formed in November by Denham, a former state senator from California’s Central Valley, as well as incoming GOP Reps. Steve Southerland of Florida, Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, Robert Dold of Illinois and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee. Southerland, Ellmers, Denham and DesJarlais all enjoyed tea party support.
Talking with reporters before the event, Denham said the political action committee was formed to help make the freshman class of Republicans “self-reliant so we will have all the funds we need to hold our seats.” He said the fundraiser, featuring country singer LeAnn Rimes, was held to mark “an exciting time for our nation.” He made no apologies about the $2,500-per-ticket entry fee.
“Unfortunately, campaigns are expensive,” he said. “We all know the Democrats are out there raising money.” He told reporters that he expected “a number of tea party members” to attend.
Republicans and Democrats both have used the post-election season to replenish campaign coffers. For instance, in late November, partners at the Washington lobbying and law firm of DLA Piper helped co-host a fundraiser for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at a Capitol restaurant.
In the case of incoming Republicans, many have debt from tough election battles. Some are working on “donor development” with events not billed as fundraisers but intended to help the newcomers broaden their networks.
But at tony Washington clubs and restaurants — Charlie Palmer steakhouse and Johnny’s Half Shell oyster bar — the scene is far from the message heard on the campaign trail.
On his campaign website, incoming Arizona Rep. David Schweikert promised he would “be there to represent your interests, not big spending special interests. I will push for common sense reforms in Congress that will reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests.”
Schweikert invited lobbyists to a debt-retirement fundraiser at the National Republican Campaign Committee in early December. The suggested contribution was $500 for an individual, $5,000 for a “benefactor.”
His office did not respond to a request for comment.
Other incoming lawmakers have put lobbyists in charge of their congressional offices, saying they hope to tap into years of experience navigating the channels of power.
“The congressman always said his intention was to hire the most talented people he could find that would help represent the people of Idaho,” said Phil Hardy, a spokesman for Rep.-elect Raul Labrador. John Goodwin, a staffer from the National Rifle Assn., met that description, Hardy said.
Incoming Reps. Joe Walsh of Illinois, Dold and Denham have each hired a lobbyist in their offices.
Denham’s new chief of staff, Jason Larrabee, served as a registered lobbyist for California water districts and clean energy interests in the past. He waved off complaints about new members hiring lobbyists and said he was proud of his prior work.
“I did it. I enjoyed it and I am honored to have the opportunity to work” for a new member on Capitol Hill, Larrabee said.
As a candidate, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — who defeated longtime Sen. Russell D. Feingold — blasted his opponent for being too close to a union lobbyist. But after winning the Senate seat, Johnson appointed a former lobbyist, Don Kent, as his chief of staff. Since 2008, Kent has worked as a registered lobbyist for Navigators Global LLC. His clients included Tyco International, United Parcel Service and CSX Transportation. Johnson’s office did not respond to a call for comment.
One tea party favorite, Sen.-elect Mike Lee of Utah, hired lobbyist Spencer Stokes as his chief of staff. Lee explained that he and Stokes, who represented software and healthcare interests, shared the goal of more “limited federal government” in the future.
“He is a brilliant man,” Lee told “Fox News Sunday” this week. “He understands Utah politics and he understands Washington politics. And I need a man like that to help me in Washington.”
That explanation won’t fly with some, particularly the more activist members of the tea party movement who blame Washington insiders for the growth of government.
“It’s a huge red flag,” said Everett Wilkinson, a tea party activist in Florida. “I have been disappointed by several congressmen who are hiring so-called ‘experienced staff.’ To me, that’s a telling sign that we have a pretty huge battle ahead of us. The good ol’ boy Washington is alive and kicking. We know that.”
Kim Geiger of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.