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By any name, it's lobbying

Capitol Journal

Without picking a side in the entertaining Republican presidential contest, let us stipulate that Mitt Romney was smack on target when he called Newt Gingrich an influence peddler.

A lobbyist? No, not in a legal sense. But did he lobby? Yes, in the common usage of the word.

An influence peddler? That pretty much covers it.

Many Sacramento lobbyists and their cousin "consultants" got a chuckle out of the fiery Romney-Gingrich exchange in the Jan. 23 Florida debate.

There was Romney, pulling out the old pejorative "lobbyist," and the former House speaker resisting it as if he were being called a con man or a pimp.

"Even Romney was putting lobbyists in a bad light," notes longtime Sacramento highway construction lobbyist Dave Ackerman, who began his career working for Republican politicians.

"Obama hasn't said anything about lobbyists yet," he adds tongue-in-cheek, referring to the irony of his livelihood being picked on by a fellow Republican. "I guess we're just fun to take shots at. It's a free shot and no one's going to defend us."

Ackerman has a little sign in his office that reads: "Don't tell my mother I'm a lobbyist. She thinks I play the piano in a whorehouse."

There are hundreds — maybe thousands, no one keeps count — of Gingrich-type non-lobbyist consultants in Sacramento. Many, like Gingrich, have learned the legislating ropes, developed relationships and earned redeemable chits in the legislative or executive branches.

They have influence and peddle it to special interests of all kinds.

It's the American way. We all have a right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances. You can look it up in the 1st Amendment.

Of course, some have more money to spend on exercising this right than most. They hire influence. And many arrange to nourish the politicians with campaign contributions, what the late Assembly Speaker Jesse "Big Daddy" Unruh famously called "the mother's milk of politics."

There are roughly 1,200 lobbyists registered and regulated today in Sacramento. And there are the countless consultants. They all have the same basic mission: to influence public policy.

In the Florida debate, Romney brought up Gingrich's work for Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage guarantor, a GOP villain in the housing meltdown. Gingrich's consulting firm was paid $1.6 million by Freddie — not to lobby, he has insisted, but to provide perspective as "a historian."

"They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians," Romney said.

The former Massachusetts governor also mentioned Gingrich's work for healthcare companies. And he articulated common sense:

"If you're getting paid by health companies … that could benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you'd like. I call it influence-peddling."

Romney added that "it is not right." But I wouldn't go that far. It's legal, far as we know.

My bone with Gingrich is his laughable denial of lobbying. Sure, he had a contract that specifically excluded him from providing "lobbying services." But as a "consultant" he offered strategic lobbying advice. We're talking semantics.

It's the sort of fine-line walking that goes on in Sacramento constantly.

One illustration of the ambiguity: The lobbyist rulebook produced by the watchdog state Fair Political Practices Commission reads: "Not everyone who is paid to lobby will qualify as a lobbyist."

That's more the reflection of a complex regulatory system than government gobbledygook.

I won't try to interpret the law. But people required to formally register as lobbyists in Sacramento are generally those who spend a lot of time in direct contact with lawmakers trying to influence public policy. They knock on legislators' doors, testify at committee hearings and clog Capitol hallways during crucial legislative sessions. They're the workhorses.

People who can get by as unregistered consultants tend to stay above the grime, at least in public. They provide strategic lobbying advice or practice political law or do public relations — and work behind the scenes as well-connected insiders affecting policy.

The main difference for the public is that it can look up registered lobbyists to see who's influencing what. But it's doubtful many do.

One reason to avoid registering is that then you're not burdened with filling out lobbyists' paperwork to feed the bureaucracy. And you're not bothered with the silly rule against spending more than $10 a month entertaining a legislator, a holdover from Gov. Jerry Brown's post-Watergate political reform crusade. "Enough for two hamburgers and a coke," he said back then.

Another motive to sidestep the lobbyist label is, of course, the stigma.

Some of these people may want to run for office in the future.

"Polls show that most of the public believes that lobbyists just climbed out of a mayonnaise jar," says Rusty Areias, a former legislator, state parks director and now a consultant.

"I'm not a registered lobbyist, but my father introduces me as a lobbyist. It's a difference without a distinction to the public."

Then there's my daughter, Karen Skelton, a lifelong political junkie who worked her way up the ladder to the White House as President Clinton's deputy political director, making contacts. She's a consultant for a clean-tech company and works on projects with Maria Shriver.

"A lobbyist has a very nasty reputation and it's not justified in many ways," she says. "There are images of these big fat men smoking cigars. But every organization has lobbyists, whether it's Easter Seals or Amazon."

I routinely introduce my daughter as an influence peddler.

At least she's not called a politician or a member of the mainstream media.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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